At Paris Nanterre University, birthplace of France’s 1968 student revolution, Caroline Houtcheme spends her lunch hours handing out flyers and rallying support for the “honest” leftwing firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
“We need to launch an alternative to the right,” said the 23-year-old as she flagged down fellow students to publicise a campus election debate ahead of the first round of France’s presidential poll on April 10.
“Mélenchon is someone who seems honest . . . His programme is one he’s had for a long time and you can tell he believes in it. It’s very structured and well thought out,” she said.
Mélenchon, 70, is gaining in the opinion polls as he makes his third bid for the Élysée — having come within a whisker of making the run-off against eventual winner Emmanuel Macron in 2017. His chances of causing a first-round upset this time depend partly on how he fares with young voters.
His brand of radical socialism tinged with environmentalism has proved a winner with young French before. Mélenchon won more first round votes among 18-25 year-olds than either Macron or the far-right’s Marine Le Pen in the poll five years ago.
While his programme has not changed much from 2017, he is being aided this time by growing awareness of the climate crisis and interest in the environmental issues he has long championed. Green issues have moved up the list of French voter concerns in surveys to rank behind only Russia’s war in Ukraine and the high cost of living.
But courting youth creates a particular problem because under 35s are more prone to abstention than older voters. One in four young voters say they may stay away this time, polls show.
“Quite a few people are telling us they haven’t even thought about the election yet,” said Houtcheme, the young Mélenchon supporter.
Mélenchon, polling at 15 per cent of the overall vote, is still five percentage points behind Le Pen, with Macron leading on 28 per cent. Other leftwing parties are trailing in the polls, with the Socialists on just 2 per cent. Even if Mélenchon did make it to the second round vote on April 24, polls show he would be defeated in a duel against the incumbent president.
Born in French-ruled Morocco to a teacher mother and a father who worked in the postal service, Mélenchon moved to France as a child. Active in various student movement, he joined the Socialists in the late 1970s under president François Mitterrand and later served as a government minister. He broke from the party in 2008 to launch his hard-left movement.
His combination of radical leftwing proposals — ranging from a “jobs for all” plan to rolling back the retirement age to 60 — alongside green-tinged ideas such as banning pesticides or cutting flight routes have helped cement the radical appeal of Mélenchon and his France Insoumise (“France Unbowed”) party.
For the young, he wants to lower the voting age to 16 and bring in a form of paid civic service for the under-25s. He would also introduce an “autonomy grant” of more than €1,000 per month to students to prevent them falling into debt.
At a recent rally in Paris, where electro pop music and a rap performance enlivened proceedings, Mélenchon paid homage to the “inventiveness of youth” in a speech doused with optimism. “Another world is possible,” he told supporters, speaking of a need to “foment harmony between human beings and with nature”.
Yet he is a divisive figure even among supporters on the left. Admired for his oratory and socially minded policies, Mélenchon has been criticised for what many see as an aggressive manner and for positions such as pushing to exit Nato. He has adopted contentious views, including past expressions of support for Russian president Vladimir Putin.
“I’m not super fired up by his personality but Mélenchon is the only one to embody a form of workable social-ecology,” said Florent, another student rallying the troops on Nanterre’s 1960s-era campus, where Mélenchon posters compete for space with those for another anti-capitalist candidate.
Analysts agree that one area where Mélenchon is picking up supporters is on the environment. His longstanding engagement on the issue has allowed him to win votes even at the expense of the pro-environment Green party, with which he shares policies such as exiting nuclear power to build an energy mix based on 100 per cent renewable sources by 2050.
“He didn’t come up with it yesterday. He doesn’t give the impression of being opportunistic on the environment,” said Daniel Boy, a political researcher at Sciences Po university.
Compared with Yannick Jadot, from Europe Ecologie Les Verts, surveys showed voters believed Mélenchon had a more “presidential stature”, and his louder, angry manner could play well, Boy said. “As long as they go out and vote, Mélenchon can capture some of those young voters in rebellion mode,” Boy added.
Mélenchon has attracted high-profile activists to his cause, including Aurélie Trouvé, former head of campaign group Attac, known for Extinction Rebellion-style acts such as occupying airport runways.
“I consider that if you’re really an environmentalist, you need to change the system,” she said on the sidelines of a recent rally in Paris.
Yet motivating pro-environment voters might prove difficult. The topic has had less airtime than issues such as immigration pushed by rightwing candidates and debates on soaring energy prices and living costs. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also loomed large over the election campaign.
Some young people struggle to find themselves reflected in political responses to their problems, whether it be how the pandemic restricted access to learning and heightened worries over job precariousness, or on the climate crisis, said Laurent Lardeux, a sociologist at INJEP, a research body focused on young people and education.
“The young see the environment as an absolute urgency and consider politics to be something which doesn’t produce immediate effects,” he said.