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France election: Far-left Melenchon enjoys late poll surge

Associated Press logo Associated Press 12/04/2017 By ANGELA CHARLTON, Associated Press
French hard-left presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, speaks during a campaign rally in Marseille's Old Port, southern France, Sunday, April 9, 2017. The two-round presidential election is set for April 23 and May 7. (AP Photo/Claude Paris) © The Associated Press French hard-left presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, speaks during a campaign rally in Marseille's Old Port, southern France, Sunday, April 9, 2017. The two-round presidential election is set for April 23 and May 7. (AP Photo/Claude Paris)

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

Melenchon'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 Melenchon, once a distant fifth, has risen in recent polls to roughly third, about even with conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon.

Melenchon'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 left and 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, Melenchon 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 Euroskeptic 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.

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 has mastered 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 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 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 Marine Le Pen, his rival on the far right. But on immigration and Islam — key campaign issues — Melenchon is staking out the opposite ground from Le Pen.

At a Mediterranean Sea rally on 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 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 hard 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, saying he'd lead the economy to collapse.

At a rally Wednesday in Lille, Melenchon shot back at his three main rivals, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, independent centrist Emmanuel Macron — who share the top spot in most polls — and conservative Francois Fillon.

"If you elect those three, you'll be spitting blood," Melenchon told a full house.

Macron, an economy minister who bailed out of his job in the Socialist government, said at a rally in Paul, in southwest France, that only he can unify the nation. "We are the only binding force today for the country because we are the only ones who don't want to break it up."

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

Melenchon's rise is also worrying French President Francois Hollande, a moderate 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 Thursday in Le Point magazine, warning of the danger of "Melenchon-style" irresponsible populism.

While clearly enjoying the attention, Melenchon 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."

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