Far-left Candidate Surges in French Election

Supporters of French hard-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon gather in Marseille’s Old Port, southern France, to attend a campaign rally, Sunday, April 9, 2017. The two-round presidential election is set for April 23 and May 7. (AP Photo/Claude Paris)

ANGELA CHARLTON, AP

PARIS (AP) — With a bleed-the-rich video game and suggestions of a “Frexit,” French far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon is rattling financial markets by swelling in polls just 11 days before the presidential vote.

Melenchon’s rise is the latest surprise in a roller-coaster campaign that’s being closely watched around Europe, and in which anti-establishment populism has played a starring role.

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, with the top two advancing to the May 7 runoff. Melenchon, once a distant fifth place, has risen in recent polls to roughly third, around even with conservative Francois Fillon.

Melenchon’s sharp-tongued wit and unconventional views during the two presidential debates helped boost his standing among an electorate frustrated with traditional left and right parties that have failed to create jobs or pull France out of economic stagnation.

Promising to heavily tax the rich and renegotiate France’s role in the EU and trade pacts, Melenchon is also giving financial markets a new reason to worry.

Investors are growing more cautious ahead of the 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, an expression of investors’ concern as they flock to the perceived safety of German debt.

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

Melenchon, 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 Melenchon tapped into the populist zeitgeist — and the social media revolution — years ago.

An early Twitter user, he mastered intelligent tweets targeting 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 rallies to multiple cities at once.

And his campaign 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 Melenchon — 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-globalization rhetoric echoes that of chief rival Marine Le Pen. But on immigration and Islam — key campaign issues — Melenchon is staking out the opposite ground from Le Pen.

On the backdrop of the glistening Mediterranean at a huge rally Sunday, Melenchon 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 U.S. President Donald Trump’s retaliatory missile strikes in Syria as a “criminal, irresponsible act.”

He’s also campaigning heard for renewable energy — and wants French voters to eat more quinoa.

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

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

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

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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