Sophia Chikirou was a secret emissary of France’s Communist-backed presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon to the U.S. last year, embedded in Bernie Sanders’s campaign.
The 37-year-old crisscrossed the country, going to Miami, Brooklyn and Pennsylvania between March and June. She bought a “Join the Political Revolution Today” t-shirt, campaigned door-to door, filmed her experience and wrote a diary on her Tumblr blogging account about her time as a volunteer for the U.S. Democratic Party candidate.
Her mission: learning how to run a campaign on a shoe-string budget with an army of volunteers, using the Internet and other state-of-the-art technologies.
Back in France, Chikirou, the Melenchon campaign’s communications director, is putting it all to work for the candidate, who has seen the biggest surge in the polls in the last month. Her efforts have helped bring the admirer of Cuba’s Fidel Castro and former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez closer to the presidency than ever before. With less than a week to before the April 23 first round of the election, Melenchon stands as good a chance as his main rivals — centrist Emmanuel Macron, the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen and the Republican candidate Francois Fillon — to make it to the runoff on May 7.
“Melenchon shares many points in common with Sanders and also with Podemos,” Chikirou told Europe 1 radio in January, naming Spain’s far-left populist party, which used similar tactics. “Sanders relied on the people to campaign and that meant to mobilize through social media and that’s mainly what we took from him.”
On Tuesday, Chikirou will unleash Melenchon on multiple cities across France — using holograms. While the candidate gives a speech at a rally in Dijon, no less than six holograms will simultaneously deliver his speech in the cities of Clermont-Ferrand, Grenoble, Montpellier, Nancy, Nantes and on the far-off overseas Reunion island. Melenchon first used the technique in February, but in only one reproduction. The politician who draws giant crowds with his eloquence and multiple literary references, is the only candidate to use one.
“In each of our six holograms meetings there will be more supporters than in one rally of the other candidates,” Alexis Corbiere, his campaign spokesman, boasted in an interview. “We’re drawing over 10 times more supporters in Melenchon’s rallies and on his web accounts than any other candidate.”
At 65, Melenchon is the oldest of the main candidates in the race. During his rallies, dressed in his trademark black collar suit, Melenchon — an admirer of the French Revolution and Terror figure Robespierre — walks the stage without notes or a teleprompter. Over a couple of hours, he passionately lays out his case against what he sees as the injustices of capitalism, talks about how he would tax the rich, revise European treaties, including one that keeps France in the euro, leave NATO and eradicate poverty, if elected president.
Sound and Fury
This is Melenchon’s second run for president. Chikirou was with him when he launched his first attempt in 2012, dramatically saying, “I am the sound and the fury, the thunder and the crash.” He was eliminated with 11 percent in the first round. Chikirou was a junior press officer then.
The long, dark-haired Chikirou’s skills and role have expanded since. Embedded in the Sanders’s campaign, she took copious notes on his strategic use of the young and those who felt excluded to set his Internet campaign in motion, learning how to turn a mainstream voter into a “revolutionary.”
“She’s a tough cookie,” Jean-Marie Bockel, a centrist senator who counted her among his small left-wing party ranks a decade ago, said in an interview. “She’s smart, articulate and very opinionated. She wanted recognition and to spread her wings.”
Chikirou didn’t respond to requests for an interview.
Chikirou has long pushed Melenchon to bypass mainstream media to access voters directly through techniques like holograms. The campaign has created its own YouTube channel and has mobilized thousands of web volunteers to replicate his message across social media.
Le Pen and Melenchon, the two populist candidates who threaten to eliminate the candidates of establishment parties, have by far the biggest social media presence. Melenchon’s YouTube channel has 288,000 subscribers, his Facebook scores 887,000 likes and he has 1.1 million followers on Twitter.
That compares with nationalist rival Le Pen’s 1.4 million Twitter followers, 1.3 million likes on Facebook and 19,178 subscribers to her YouTube channel.
“The point was to have our own media, our own channel to roll out our themes,” Chikirou told Europe 1 radio in January. “The web is the agora … Melenchon speaks without having a journalist in front of him,” she said, evoking the Greek idea of a gathering place for the candidate to directly address his voters.
The spin guru has also sought to soften Melenchon’s often in-your-face tone and style.
Chikirou got the self-proclaimed revolutionary to talk to glossy magazines Closer and Gala about his quinoa diet. She convinced him to participate in a television show about his personal history, his grand-fatherhood and his dream for a better future driven by love and rather than money.
Like her candidate, Chikirou is herself a former and disillusioned Socialist party member. Chikirou, who comes from France’s Alpine region, jointed the party at 18 and quit after she was denied the chance to seek a Socialist seat in local elections in 2006. She tried other left-wing groups until she met Melenchon, a former Socialist who quit after he lost a bid to be the party’s general secretary to Francois Hollande, who eventually became president.
Chikirou likes to point out that in power, a President Melenchon is not going to be as radical as Candidate Melenchon.
“We are not sectarian,” she told the weekly Journal du Dimanche in October. “If we come to power tomorrow, it will not be the gulag!”