Philippe Poutou builds a fan base

The outsider presidential candidate wins supporters because of his working-class background and leftist platform.

Philippe Poutou
Philippe Poutou has won fans after his attacks on Marine Le Pen in the televised presidential debates [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]

Paris, France – A guard of young volunteers wearing red armbands block off the entrance to the stage where Philippe Poutou is expected to speak.

Behind them, a large screen plays videos of the mechanic in a verbal sparring match with National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen at the televised debate between French presidential candidates earlier in April.

The crowd in front cheers and waves the flag of Potou’s New Anti-Capitalist Party when he attacks the far-right leader over allegations of corruption in her role as a member of the European Parliament.

Those attending are a mix of young and old: North African youths from the banlieue of Aubervilliers, where the event is taking place, take up seats next to white leftists wearing the Palestinian keffiyeh.

French hip hop music roars in the background, making it difficult to escape the well-worn cliche of a political rally resembling a music venue.

A young man guards the stage at a rally for French presidential candidate, Philippe Poutou [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]
A young man guards the stage at a rally for French presidential candidate, Philippe Poutou [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]

Eventually their hero arrives to energetic applause, accompanied by feminist, socialist and anti-racist activists.

They rail against Islamophobia, gender inequality, homophobia and police brutality as the crowd breaks out in leftist chanting.

“On ne lachera rien,” they shout. “We will not let go”.

Finally their hero takes to the stage.

“They are afraid of the challenge, they fear the rise of the population, it is why there is class hatred,” says Poutou, raging against the existing political order. “We refuse the French flag, it is a symbol of colonialism and oppression.”

The presidential candidate was the star of early April’s debate between the 11 people standing to lead France.

While his rivals opted for suits, Poutou wore a long-sleeved T-shirt rolled up at his elbow.

The sometimes nervous-looking figure was caught looking back consulting his friends in the audience, but when it came for his turn to speak that apparent uneasiness gave way to blistering attacks on Le Pen and conservative candidate Francois Fillon. 

A scene from Poutou's recent televised debate with rival candidate [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]
A scene from Poutou’s recent televised debate with rival candidate [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]

With  only 2 percent in the polls, Poutou, has no realistic chance of winning, but his down to earth, man on the street demeanour is winning him fans.

In the front row of the crowd in Aubervilliers ,18-year-old student Ines sits flicking through Poutou’s campaign pamphlet.

“When I was young I supported Sarkozy, but with all of his corruption I stopped believing in any kind of politics,” she says, adding that it was Poutou who had ended that disillusionment.

“Listening to Poutou, I can tell he’s sincere and that he really cares and I think he can really change things.”

While the major candidates in the election bring with them experience as ministers or leaders of big opposition parties, Poutou did not go to university and spent much of his life working in a factory.

Those are handy credentials when youth unemployment in the country is close to a quarter and many young people are employed in short-term contracts.

“Working class unity doesn’t exist with the others,” says Jean, who describes himself as a communist.

“The buzz around Poutou comes from his clash with Le Pen during the debates, when he told her that she could use her political immunity to protect herself from the police, but working-class class immunity did not exist, that punchline went down well.”

The perceived contempt with which some in the media have treated Poutou has further reinforced his position as a man of the people, at least with those attending the rally. 

'We see ourselves in him,' says Louise about Poutou [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]
‘We see ourselves in him,’ says Louise about Poutou [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]

“The way he was treated by Laurent Ruquier was demeaning, they made some very nasty comments about him,” says Louise, referring to Poutou’s appearance on the comedian’s talk show, on which guests and hosts alike laughed at his chances of winning and his policies.

“These posh, middle-class journalists were mocking a working-class guy and it makes them look bad.

“He speaks like us, and we see ourselves in him.”

Despite their enthusiasm for his campaign, there are quiet murmurs among Poutou’s supporters about the fate of the wider left.

Some speak about the increasingly realistic possibility that they could be voting for leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon in the runoff scheduled for May.

Whatever happens, they do not want the energy that Poutou has built up to dissipate.

Sophie, who says she has backed leftist candidates for the past 10 years says she wants the momentum to continue after the election:

“I hope it doesn’t go away, we need to keep fighting until we get our rights.”

Poutou polls at only 2 percent but his supporters hope to build on that support after the election [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]
Poutou polls at only 2 percent but his supporters hope to build on that support after the election [Shafik Mandhai/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera