Here, tragically, the extremes threaten to meet. While Melenchon vilifies Le Pen's racism and has nothing but scorn for her person — "foul beast" and "siren of hatred" are among his gentler phrases — he nevertheless shares Le Pen's hostility toward globalization and the EU. Like Le Pen, Melenchon decries the EU's "economic liberalism" that has, in his eyes, ransomed the peoples of Europe. Most important, both cast themselves as challengers to a corrupt political and economic system. They have, as a result, drawn their most fervent support from similar demographics, galvanizing the youth and drawing the support of workers and professionals who, whether former Socialists, Communists or Gaullists, no longer believe these parties are defending their interests. These similarities in fact moved Le Monde to publish a caricature of Melenchon and Le Pen reading from the same speech, titled "They're All Rotten."
Will 2012 be 2002 all over again in France? Unlikely: The polls agree that Sarkozy and Hollande will emerge victorious from the first round, and that Hollande will take the second round. Yet, a strong third-place showing by either Le Pen or Melenchon will complicate the final round in the presidential election. Hollande risks becoming hostage to Melenchon's economic and political proposals, while Sarkozy, in his promise to sharply reduce the flow of immigrants, is already trying to peel off Le Pen's supporters. While the republic will survive the results, the republican credo will emerge battered. Next month's victor will have his work cut out to prove that there isn't something rotten in the state of France.
Robert Zaretsky teaches French history at the Honors College of the University of Houston and is coauthor of "France and its Empire Since 1870."