Melenchon - France's fiesty Castro fan and would-be president

By Brian Love
Jean-Luc Melenchon of the French far left Parti de Gauche and candidate for the 2017 French presidential election, attends a political rally in Lille, France, April 12, 2017. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

By Brian Love

PARIS (Reuters) - He admires the late Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and Venezuelan former president Hugo Chavez, and he has little time for German Chancellor Angela Merkel: Jean-Luc Melenchon, French would-be president, is a true tax-and-spend leftist.

If elected, the 65-year-old leader of the small Left Party says France would spend 100 billion euros of borrowed money on vast housebuilding and renewable energy projects to stimulate economic growth and job-creation.

He would impose a 90-percent supertax on earners of 400,000 euros a year upwards, reject EU rules on deficit reduction and call a "Frexit" referendum to quit the European Union if Merkel and other leaders refuse to radically change course, notably by turning their backs on years of financial austerity.

If French voters pick any of the other three top contenders in a presidential vote that comes to a head on May 7, Melenchon warned a rally on April 12: "You'll be coughing blood".

The rivals are centrist Emmanuel Macron, favourite in polls, Francois Fillon, a right-winger who wants to slash public spending and the public employment workforce, and Marine Le Pen, whose biggest difference with Melenchon is her stand against foreigners.

Like Le Pen, he is a member of the European Parliament, but no fan of the direction the European Union has taken. Poverty and poor economic growth, he says, are a result of laissez-faire economics and an allergy to deficit-spending that he blames on Merkel's Germany.

By spending heavily and hiking public sector wages, he says, the French economy will grow faster, knocking the jobless rate from 10 percent to six percent by end of term in 2022, buoying tax income for the state and social services.

The man who left the Socialist Party after three decades in 2009 to pursue a tougher brand of socialism wants to nationalise key sectors like airports and motorways, create a public banking giant and legalise cannabis.

He wants to devalue the euro to boost trade competitiveness. He promises to veto free-trade pacts, end European Central Bank independence from politicians, quit the International Monetary Fund and pull France out of the NATO military alliance.

The quest for environment-friendly agriculture, industry and alternatives to nuclear and carbon-based power is an opportunity France and Europe must seize, he says; hence the pledge to spend much of his 100 billion euros stimulus on new power projects.

Instead of the free trade agreements he denounces, Melenchon advocates alternative forms of cooperation. His manifesto lauds a Latin American accord under which Chavez sent oil to Cuba and Castro dispatched eye-doctors to treat thousands of Venezuelans blinded by cataracts.

A distrust of traditional media has led him to rely heavily on social media to reach out to voters.

He boasts a bigger Youtube following than U.S. President Donald Trump has during the race to the White House.

He uses hologram technology worthy of Star Trek movies to address rallies, usually sporting a hybrid of traditional proletarian jackets, while a virtual-reality Melenchon does the same job at rallies elsewhere.

Born in the Moroccan port city of Tangiers, Melenchon attributes his fiesty character to his Mediterranean roots.

He is naturally more muted about his rise to fourth place in polls, days from the April 23 opening vote. He surged in the same way in 2012 but was knocked out with a less impressive score on voting day.

(Reporting By Brian Love; Editing by Richard Balmforth)