French election shaken by surge in support for far-left candidate

Jon Henley European affairs correspondent
Jean-Luc Mélenchon at rally in Marseille, France. Photograph: Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters

A dramatic seven-point surge by the wildcard leftwing veteran Jean-Luc Mélenchon appears to be holding, unexpectedly turning France’s roller-coaster presidential race into a possible four-way contest.

Barely 10 days from the first round of voting on 23 April, the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, both with 23-24% of the vote, are still favourites to go through to the run-off round.

But Mélenchon, an acid-tongued political showman with a radical tax-and-spend platform, is now just five or six points behind. Some recent polls have placed him third, ahead of the scandal-hit centre-right candidate, François Fillon.

Mélenchon’s rise means that with up to a third of voters undecided, no two opinion polls entirely alike and margins of error to account for, it is impossible to say with certainty who of the front four will go head-to-head in the second round.

The extreme unpredictability of the contest is rattling financial markets and observers alike. The campaign “smells bad”, the outgoing president, François Hollande, has privately told friends, Le Monde reported.

Fearing what commentators are calling a destructive mood among voters, Hollande also warned against the dangers of “simplifications and falsifications” in an election widely marked by anti-establishment anger and populist politics.

Analysts are now contemplating the previously unimaginable prospect of a run-off between Mélenchon and Le Pen, a clash between far-left and far-right that would represent a seismic upheaval in French and European politics.

Mélenchon, 65, who resigned from Hollande’s centre-left party in 2008 and heads a grass-roots movement, La France Insoumise or Untamed France, has mainly picked up votes from the plummeting official Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon.

Mélenchon supporters in Marseille on 9 April. Photograph: Claude Paris/AP

Helped by his caustic rhetoric, strong performances in televised debates and a slick campaign that includes addressing rallies by hologram and Fiscal Combat – a “hit-the-rich” video game – his personal approval rating has leapt 22 points in a month to 68 points, making him France’s most popular politician.

“He’s invented political stand-up,” said one former Socialist party ally, Julien Dray. “He’s become a showman.” Mélenchon himself told the Journal du Dimanche he had become a “reassuring” figure and was “less of a hothead”.

Mélenchon’s policies include reducing France’s working week from 35 to 32 hours, lowering the retirement age to 60, raising the minimum wage and social security benefits, and taxing earnings of more than €33,000 a month at 100%.

He also wants to withdraw from nuclear power, which produces about 75% of France’s electricity needs, and radically reform the French constitution by abolishing the presidential regime of the Fifth Republic.

While his position on immigration is the opposite of Le Pen’s, Mélenchon is not so far removed from the Front National leader in foreign affairs, advocating a “new role” for France in the EU, withdrawal from Nato and warmer ties with Russia.

It is his plans to boost public spending by €173bn over five years and pull France out of EU treaties if Brussels does not agree to fundamental reforms that have most rattled conservatives and investors.

“Melenchon: the crazy programme of the French Chavez,” read the front-page headline in the conservative Le Figaro daily on Wednesday, comparing the Communist-backed candidate to the late Venezuelan leader.

Pierre Gattaz, the leader of France’s main business group Medef, said this week a second round pitting Mélenchon against Le Pen would be “a catastrophe” for France, forcing voters to choose between “economic disaster and economic chaos”.

Recent polls modelling hypothetical second round run-offs predict that Macron – a former economy minister and investment banker who has never held elected office but says he wants to transcend the traditional left-right divide and govern “fairly and efficiently” – would beat Le Pen, Fillon and Mélenchon.

Fillon, a former conservative prime minister battling allegations he paid his wife hundreds of thousands of euros of public money for minimal work as a parliamentary assistant, would beat Le Pen, but lose to either of the other two, while Mélenchon would beat Le Pen and Fillon but lose to Macron.

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