France’s Volatile Presidential Race Puts Far-Left Crusader in the Mix

Jean-Luc Mélenchon gets a late surge in polls less than two weeks before voting gets under way

By Joshua Robinson and William Horobin

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a left-wing candidate in the French presidential election, at a rally in Lyon in Feb. 5. Photo: Marc Ollivier/Zuma Press 

FENAIN, France—Far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, campaigning as an antiglobalist champion of a forgotten working class, has surged into contention in France’s presidential election, transforming the contest into a four-way race.

Strong performances in TV debates and an ability to draw massive crowds with his promises of higher wages and fewer working hours has propelled Mr. Mélenchon into third place in some polls, ahead of conservative François Fillon and within striking distance of National Front leader Marine Le Pen and upstart centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron.

“He brings something new, new ideas, compared to the candidates we’ve had for a number of years,” said Bruno Bastin, a 25-year-old working in his family’s funeral parlor in Fenain, a town in France’s deindustrialized north where Mr. Mélenchon is hunting for votes.

The surge in support for Mr. Mélenchon, who dons a Mao jacket on the campaign trail, is scrambling the math of an already erratic French presidential election campaign that has sidelined traditional political parties.

The changing landscape has spooked investors. On Tuesday, the extra yield investors demand to hold 10-year French government debt over safe-haven German bonds rose to nearly 0.75 percentage point, nearing a 2017 high reached in mid-February, as they fled French assets.

At a rally in Marseille on Sunday, Mr. Mélenchon told a crowd of about 70,000 that his rising popularity means he might advance beyond the April 23 first-round vote to the decisive runoff on May 7.

“You can hear it. You can feel it. Victory is within reach of our efforts,” Mr. Mélenchon said.

A nationally representative poll by Kantar Sofres-Onepoint published Sunday showed Mr. Mélenchon on 18%, overtaking Mr. Fillon on 17% and only six points behind Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Macron. The previous comparable poll in mid-March had Mr. Mélenchon at only 12%.

Benoît Hamon, candidate of the ruling Socialist Party, has fallen so far out of contention that over the weekend he said he would vote for Mr. Mélenchon in the second round of the election.

In a runoff against Ms. Le Pen, Mr. Mélenchon would win with 57% of the vote, the Kantar Sofres-Onepoint survey projected.

“Given Mélenchon’s momentum he could well become the biggest surprise of this volatile election,” said Antonio Barroso, an analyst at political-risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence.
 Mr. Mélenchon delivers his speech in Marseille on April 9. Photo: Rossi David/Zuma Press 

Mr. Mélenchon is seeking to build momentum at his next major rally Wednesday in Lille, the northern bastion of the French left 25 miles north of Fenain. His message of restricting layoffs and handing power from shareholders to workers is expected to resonate in an area suffering from plant closures and deindustrialization.

Mr. Mélenchon already ran for president in 2012 after quitting the Socialist Party in 2008. Polls at the time also showed a surge in the closing weeks of the campaign, although he scored only 11% in the actual vote.

This time, the far-leftist who rails against austerity and the European Union has led a more innovative election campaign, using a hologram of himself in February to stage a rally simultaneously in Paris and Lyon. He plans to repeat the stunt in seven locations at once for one of his final rallies before the first round of voting.

The plan is aimed at bringing back voters who had written him off. Thibault Ducrot, an unemployed 31-year-old from Lyon, said he planned to vote for the centrist Mr. Macron for practical purposes, despite his natural inclination to vote for Mr. Mélenchon. But now, “if he has a chance to get through, I’d think about it,” Mr. Ducrot said.

Mr. Mélenchon is running on a similar soak-the-rich program as five years ago. He has pledged to raise taxes on inheritance and capital, outlaw stock-options and create a maximum wage by taxing all income over the level of €400,000 ($423,000) a year.

For workers, Mr. Mélenchon says he would grant a sixth week of annual vacation, encourage a four-day, 32-hour workweek, raise the minimum wage and reduce the retirement age. He would also abolish the labor law socialist President François Hollande introduced last year that gives more power to companies to negotiate conditions with workers.

Mr. Mélenchon wants to pull France from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and radically overhaul Europe—points that overlap with the anti-Europe platform of Ms. Le Pen.

Mr. Mélenchon says he would devalue the euro, restructure public debts, increase protectionism and authorize the European Central Bank to lend directly to states. If he doesn’t achieve those aims in negotiations, Mr. Mélenchon says he would implement a “Plan B” to pull France out of the euro, impose capital controls and stop contributing to the EU budget.

Mr. Mélenchon’s surge has surprised his own supporters. Mohamed Ben Nasr, a Mélenchon-backing truck driver from Lyon who has voted for the left in every election since 1981, said last week he hated that the election “seems decided in advance. The ones we all like are in last place.”

But even as he spoke, the situation was changing. Mr. Ben Nasr’s vote for Mr. Mélenchon no longer looks like a first-round footnote. “He’s the one who tells the truth,” Mr. Ben Nasr said.

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