To the barricades? French rally behind far-left candidate's fighting words

Jean Luc Mélenchon has suddenly become the No. 3 French presidential candidate, whipping up crowds with his robust leftist rhetoric in a tough election season.

By , Staff Writer

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    Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of France's Parti de Gauche political party and the Front de Gauche political party candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, attends the Alternative World Water Forum (FAME) in Marseille, March 15.
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To the barricades, citizens: Jean Luc Mélenchon is on the rise, claiming the authentic voice of the old French Revolution in upcoming elections.

But the French presidential candidate is something new: a far-left nationalist who can whip up a crowd. He shakes his fists, waves the red flag, calls for a “civic insurrection” among citizens, scorns elites, hates capitalism – and has suddenly become the No. 3 candidate in this somewhat fractious and tortured election season.

Police this week continued high-profile roundups of suspected Islamic radicals after the shock of a Toulouse attacker who killed soldiers and Jewish children and claimed to be linked to Al Qaeda. President Nicolas Sarkozy and much of the French media have shifted the subject of the elections to Muslims and foreigners.

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But a new and serious dynamic in the race is now playing out on the vast French left, which includes about half of voters. Behind the Mélenchon phenomenon is a sizable bloc of urban working class and middle class voters, uncommitted, worried about jobs, housing, and pensions, and less fixated on the identity politics of Mr. Sarkozy and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.  Mr. Mélenchon's rhetoric also shows that in France, “red meat” issues of social justice on the left continue to persist.

“Mélenchon has been able to federate the hard left, the Trotskyites, the communist party, a lot of smaller parties, unions, public service workers…. Greens and ecologists,” says Arun Kapil, a political scientist at Catholic University in Paris. “And with [Socialist candidate François] Hollande leading an uninspiring campaign, there’s been a snowball effect around [Mélenchon.]”

Mélenchon, a colorful radical populist, a former communist, and former Socialist minister who rides public transport in Paris, is playing on the latent revolutionary sentiments of the Republic, analysts say.

Some moderate leftists whisper that he is “scary,” as he has defended the Chinese Cultural Revolution and is avowedly anti-European Union.

Mélenchon recently out-polled Ms. Le Pen of the National Front, who wants to deport foreigners and recreate French pride and nationalism.

"We have been the most valiant defenders of fellowship. France has won a huge victory: the serial killer achieved nothing, and neither did the jackals of the National Front," Mélenchon said at a Lille rally of 20,000 two days ago as polls show his popularity has doubled in the past three weeks.

While Sarkozy is fighting to capture the far-right voter from Le Pen, whipping up frenzy about halal meat (prepared according to Muslim standards) and banning or deporting Muslim clerics, Mr. Mélenchon has been driving all over the voting territory of the Socialist front-runner François Hollande, who has been, like a modest turtle, quietly nosing his way to the election finish line with a moderate center-left platform.

Mélenchon is backed by the Communist Party, which for the first time in three decades is not running a candidate, and he calls for a cap on salaries over 350,000 euros, wants France out of Afghanistan if not NATO, and has voted against further French participation in the European Union.

A day before the Toulouse shooting, Mélenchon’s rally at the symbolic Bastille in Paris saw 100,000 enthusiasts, more than Sarkozy has achieved, and forced the small far-left party to take out loans to hire security protection to keep their rallies safe.

"The river has broken its banks and no matter what happens, the flood isn’t going to recede any time soon,” Mélenchon said, speaking of new enthusiasms on the  left.

French elections take place in two rounds, April 22 and May 5. Whereas Mr. Hollande, who is running a projected 8 to 9 points ahead of Sarkozy in the crucial second round runoff, recently said he was not “dangerous”  – a slap at a perception of Sarkozy among many French – Mélenchon unashamedly says, "It’s we who are dangerous" as activists and tough social critics of the established mainstream parties. He never fails to poke at Hollande, calling on him to stand up for true Socialist ideals.

Hollande in recent days unveiled his Socialist platform, which, in a presumed nod to the far left, called for a 75 percent tax on those making more than a million euros a year. He says that, if elected, he will, in the first eight weeks of office, cut political leaders’ salaries up to 30 percent, put a freeze on fuel prices, and further help the parents of schoolchildren. He has also said he will hire 60,000 new teachers, though has not shown how the financing for the plan will work.

Mr. Kapil, the political scientist, says enthusiasm for Mélenchon has spiked because his voters know Hollande will win in the first round. “So they are secure. About 90 percent of Mélenchon’s voters will vote for Hollande in round two.”

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