Jean-Luc Mélenchon: What Popular Union?

Source: Wikimedia Commons

As in the previous presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon outpaced all his competitors on the left by several million votes. His electorate is both in continuity with the 2017 election and undergoing profound transformations.

In the 2017 presidential election, the Socialist Party (supported by Europe-Écologie Les Verts, EELV, Green Party) was unable to win the support of the traditional left voters. The latter had massively supported Mélenchon’s candidacy (19.58% vs. 6.36% for Benoît Hamon, EELV). Far from establishing hegemony, the result had revived the competition on the left between, on the one hand, traditional centre-left parties determined to regain an electoral dynamic, and on the other, La France Insoumise, which had established itself as the main political force on the left. At the beginning of the 2022 presidential election, the formations of the social-democratic space (PRG – Parti radical de gauche, PS – Parti socialiste, EELV) initially bet on a strategy of unity around a common candidacy to recover a central position, betting on the sidelining of the La France Insoumise. Faced with a declining Socialist Party and encouraging results in the European and local elections, the Greens thought they would assert themselves at the head of a coalition. Various attempts at rallying having failed, each party finally decided to present its own candidacy. The French Communist Party met the aspirations expressed by its members at the 2018 congress by reviving an independent bid for the presidency. While France Insoumise oscillated quite a bit during the last five years between a populist strategy and a reaffirmation of its anchorage on the left, it has bet on a new strategy in 2022, called “Popular Union”. The aim of it is to defend of an anti-racist, feminist and ecologist perspective by federating in the campaign personalities involved in these fights outside of the party.

The fractured landscape on which left-wing voters have expressed themselves has not fundamentally altered the trends and balances observed in 2017. The Socialist Party with 1.74% of the vote seems to be on the verge of erasure. Ecologists have not managed to convince beyond their typical voters and have confirmed their distance to the lower classes, stumbling at 4.63% of the suffrages expressed. The addition of the two results (4.63% and 1.74%) corresponds more or less to the weight of Hamon’s candidacy in 2017, who had obtained 6.36% of the vote, or 2,291,288 votes. The total on the left, however, increased from 27.67% to 31.94%. By gathering nearly 28%[1] of the abstentionists of the 1st round of 2017 who voted in 2022 (i.e. 750,000 voters and nearly 10% of his total electorate), Mélenchon is the main contributor to this progression of the left. The other candidates respectively won 6% for Yannick Jadot, and 3% each for Philippe Poutou, Fabien Roussel and Anne Hidalgo of the votes of these 2017 abstentionists.

As in the previous presidential election, the France Insoumise candidate outpaced all his competitors on the left by several million votes. Up by more than 600,000 votes, the electorate of Mélenchon is both in continuity with the 2017 election and undergoing profound transformations. He captured the vote of 43% of Hamon voters and 7% of Emmanuel Macron voters. However, the reproduction rate among his 2017 voters is particularly low for a growing electorate (66% against 74% for Macron and 78% for Marine Le Pen). Lost Mélenchon voters fueled 15% of the vote for other left-wing candidates, which isn’t surprising in this context of divisions, as well as 18% for the political space ranging from Macron to Éric Zemmour. In comparison, Le Pen abandons only 6% of his voters to the political space that ranges from Macron to the far left. The dynamics of Mélenchon’s campaign indicate he changed his electoral base more than the other two main candidates did.

A cross-class vote?

Mélenchon obtained relatively homogeneous results in each of the socio-professional categories, apart from his underperformance among retirees (11%). He obtained the vote of 25% of managers, higher and intermediate grade professions as well as employees and 23% of manual workers[1]. However, this even distribution tends to obscure some of the characteristics of its electorate since, as in 2017[2], it is mainly composed of voters who belong to both devalued and precarious segments of the labour market.

The breakdown by type of education confirms support for his candidacy among graduates. Mélenchon collected 22% of the vote among people with a high-school degree and 26% among people with a diploma higher than a bachelor’s degree. Nevertheless, he achieves a below average score in the highest income brackets: 28% among people earning less than 1,250 euros monthly and 18% for those who earn more than 3,000 euros. The Mélenchon vote potentially captures people who have an undervalued degree, a high level of qualification without significant remuneration. The intersection of diploma and income indicators will be one of the important lines of research to better understand this part of the electorate.

In the precarious sectors of the working population and the lower classes, Mélenchon won 34% of the votes of the unemployed and 34% of the votes cast by people with an income of less than 900 euros in the IFOP poll. He also achieves very high scores in the most disenfranchised territories, as in the overseas departments (where he gathered some of his highest scores, averaging around 50%), while also peaking at 42.5% in the poorest municipalities. This mobilisation of popular categories is a significant element distinguishing Mélenchon from his competitors on the left. On the other hand, the social democratic space as well as the PCF (Parti communiste français) appear much more distant from these social groups. For example, Jadot and Roussel were supported by only 1% of manual workers, 4% and 6% of the unemployed respectively or 3% and 6% of people with an income under 900 euros per month. Jadot also achieves his best results in the 1% of the richest municipalities (6.3%) while he obtains 2% in the poorest municipalities.

In 2017, support for the candidacy of Mélenchon did not suffer from an imbalance between urban and rural territories. In 2022 on the contrary, he outperforms in large cities and the Paris region and declines in municipalities with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants[4]. It is in municipalities where the population experiences both racist discrimination and economic poverty that Mélenchon achieves his best scores. It can be hypothesized that this success can be explained by two concomitant reasons. On the one hand, the adoption of a strategy that embraces part of the anti-racist platform (fight against Islamophobia and police violence) may have triggered a partial recomposition of the electorate, mobilising the inhabitants of large agglomerations exposed to social and racial discrimination. On the other hand, his progress is more limited in rural and semi-rural communes where he suffers to a certain extent from competition from the communist candidate who outperforms slightly, relative to his national result.

To conclude

The strong growth of Mélenchon in the polls at the tail end of the campaign is the result of two distinct phenomena: the ability to mobilise abstentionists and the strategic vote for people favouring the qualification in the second round of the best placed candidate in their political family.

Rather than a purely “useful” vote, Mélenchon benefited from a positive outcome with a vote of conviction (when measured from the point of view of the agreement with the programme), which had the advantage at the end of the campaign of being linked to the fact of preventing the extreme right from reaching the second round.

The loss of a blue-collar anchorage[4], combined with the proximity of Mélenchon scores across all socio-professional categories, could lead us to think the left no longer has a specific social base. However, analysing maps and survey data suggests that Mélenchon managed to deepen the support of two social groups with whom he had already forged a link during the previous elections: social and cultural workers on the one hand, who were one of the strong points of his electorate in 2012, and racialised people on the other hand, already among the most active in the mobilisation of 2017[5] in his favour.

The electorate of Mélenchon is probably a conglomerate associating higher-educated classes whose remuneration is relatively low, and parts of working classes with some education and/or experience of racial discrimination. To explain the Mélenchon vote, one cannot ignore the temporal and dynamic dimension of the voting decision. Last winter, his electorate seemed more popular (workers and potential targets of discrimination) than the voters who have decided in recent days. The last-minute mobilization potentially has a very different dimension and seems to have mobilized several groups of voters whose typical portrait seems difficult to establish. The identification of the layers of mobilization will be a crucial element in the understanding of this electorate.


[1] Ipsos, “Sociology of electorates and profile of abstentionists, 10 April 2022.

[2] Focal Collective. Popular votes! The social basis of electoral polarisation in the 2017 presidential election, Editions du Croquant, 2022, 228.

[3] Roger Martelli, “2022: Mélenchon settles in the communist space, but not only…”, Looks, 14 April 2022.

[4] Michel Simon and Guy Michelat. Workers and politics. Permanence, ruptures, realignments. Sciences Po Press, 2004

[5] Focal Collective. Popular votes!