January 22, 2018
Thursday, April 13, 2017

France’s leftist Mélenchon enjoys late poll surge

French hard-left presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, speaks during a campaign rally in Marseille''s Old Port, southern France, on Sunday

Less than two weeks before first round vote, likely runoff between former Socialist and far-right Le Pen appears on the horizon

PARIS — With a bleed-the-rich video game and suggestions of a “Frexit,” French left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon is rattling financial markets by rising in polls just 11 days before the country’s presidential vote.

Mélenchon’s surge is the latest surprise in a roller-coaster campaign that’s being closely watched around Europe and has featured a strong dose of anti-establishment populism.

Most polling agencies still show that centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen are leading ahead of the April 23 first round presidential vote, with the top two vote-getters advancing to the May 7 presidential runoff. Yet Mélenchon, once a distant fifth, has risen in recent polls to roughly third, about even with conservative presidential candidate François Fillon.

Mélenchon’s sharp-tongued wit and eloquent anti-capitalist rhetoric during the two presidential debates helped boost his standing among an electorate frustrated with France’s traditional centre-left and centre-right parties, which have failed to create jobs or pull the country out of its economic stagnation.

Promising to heavily tax the rich and renegotiate France’s role in the EU and trade pacts, Mélenchon is also giving financial markets a new reason to worry. A possible French departure from the EU — a “Frexit” — would be devastating to the bloc.

Investors are growing more cautious ahead of the presidential election in the eurozone’s second-biggest economy. The difference between the 10-year bond yields of France and Germany has risen to its widest in six weeks, as investors flock to the perceived safety of German debt.

“With the growing threat of Eurosceptic parties destabilizing the eurozone’s unity weighing heavily on sentiment, the euro may be in store for further punishment,” Lukman Otunuga of FXTM said Wednesday.

Mélenchon, 65, is an unlikely iconoclast. He spent decades in mainstream politics, serving in a Socialist government and in parliament. He now leads a far-left alliance that includes the Communist Party.

Yet Mélenchon tapped into the populist zeitgeist — and the social media revolution — years ago.

An early Twitter user, he has mastered tweets targetting the world of finance. His YouTube channel — started for the 2012 presidential campaign, where he finished fourth — has garnered 21 million views. He’s using holograms to broadcast election rallies to multiple cities at once.

And his campaign has generated new attention in recent days thanks to a goofy online game called Fiscal Kombat created by his supporters. The player — represented by a rudimentary caricature of Mélenchon — grabs leading politicians and shakes them until money falls from their pockets. The money, presumably stolen from the masses, can then be used to build a more egalitarian economy.

His anti-EU, anti-globalisation rhetoric vaguely echoes that of Marine Le Pen, his rival on the far right. But on immigration and Islam — key campaign issues — Mélenchon is staking out the opposite ground from Le Pen.

At a Mediterranean Sea rally on Sunday, Mélenchon held a moment of silence for the thousands of migrants killed trying to cross the sea in hopes of a better life in Europe.

“Listen — it’s the silence of the death,” he told the crowd. “It is up to us to say that emigration is always forced exile, a suffering.”

Calling himself the “candidate of peace,” he’s lobbying to quit NATO and denounced US President Donald Trump’s retaliatory missile strikes in Syria as a “criminal, irresponsible act.” He’s also campaigning hard for renewable energy — and wants French voters to eat more quinoa.

Thanks to his poll surge, Mélenchon’s rivals are increasingly attacking him instead of each other, saying he’d lead the economy to collapse.

Some fellow leftists are frustrated that he and Socialist presidential candidate Benoit Hamon didn’t join forces; together they enjoy more poll support than anyone else.

Mélenchon’s rise is also worrying French President François Hollande, a market-friendly Socialist who’s so unpopular that he is not running for re-election.

“This campaign smells bad,” Hollande is quoted as saying in an interview being published today in Le Point magazine, warning of the danger of “Mélenchon-style” irresponsible populism.

While clearly enjoying the attention, Mélenchon is also playing it down.

“I’m doing the work that needs to be done,” he told reporters. “It’s the voters who will decide.”

Herald with AP, Reuters

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