Tens of thousands marched in Paris on Sunday to support firebrand leftist presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has shaken up France's election campaign with a surprise jump in the polls.

"/> Tens of thousands marched in Paris on Sunday to support firebrand leftist presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has shaken up France's election campaign with a surprise jump in the polls.

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Tens of thousands march for leftist candidate

Tens of thousands marched in Paris on Sunday to support firebrand leftist presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has shaken up France's election campaign with a surprise jump in the polls.

Tens of thousands march for leftist candidate
Pierre-Alain Dorange

Mélenchon of the Front de Gauche (Left Front), who represents a coalition of leftist parties including the Communists, has emerged as a significant factor in the campaign just as Socialist frontrunner François Hollande faces a resurgent threat from incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy.

His virulent attacks on the rich, France’s elite and austerity measures have struck a chord with many voters, and polls this week showed him rising above the symbolic 10 percent mark, up four points from the start of the year, with only five weeks to go before the April 22nd first round of voting.

Decrying a France “disfigured by inequality,” Mélenchon called for a “civic insurrection” as he addressed a sea of supporters in Place de la Bastille.

Waving red Front de Gauche and Communist Party flags, tens of thousands of supporters marched through central Paris under cloudy skies in a symbolic rally to “retake the Bastille” — the square where the mediaeval fortress and prison was stormed in the watershed event of the French Revolution.

Organisers said more than 100,000 people took part in the rally, held on the anniversary of the Paris Commune uprising of 1871.

“We have returned, the people of France’s revolutions and rebellions. We are the red flag!” Mélenchon roared to the crowd, saying the rally marked the start of a “citizens’ revolution.”

In a 20-minute speech, Mélenchon outlined a programme focused on taxing the rich and financial world, boosting social spending and increasing workers’ rights.

He also vowed constitutional changes enshrining the rights to abortion, to homosexual marriage and a “green rule” forcing France to protect the environment.

To chants of his name, Mélenchon vowed to “open a new chapter” in France’s history and offered support to the peoples of Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy, who he said were “under the weight of oppression” from European austerity measures.

“We must today, in this France that has been disfigured by inequality … refound the republic, refound France itself,” he said, before his speech ended with the singing of left-wing anthem “The Internationale” and the French national anthem.

“Mélenchon represents the only political force that truly represents the French people,” supporter Sylvianne Tardieu, a 50-year-old Communist from the central city of Clermont-Ferrand, said at the rally.

“He is fighting against the world of finance for the French people,” she said.

Organisers hailed the rally, where marchers carried placards reading “Take Power!” and “The Citizens’ Revolution Is on the March,” as a major step forward in Mélenchon’s campaign.

“This is a big success, it’s the biggest public gathering of the election campaign so far,” Mélenchon advisor Eric Coquerel told BFM television.

“We can go much higher,” he said of Mélenchon’s poll numbers. “Our campaign is gaining credibility. … We are targeting the second round.”

The latest IFOP poll released Sunday showed Mélenchon with 11 percent support in the first round.

It also showed right-wing Sarkozy, who this week for the first time moved ahead of Hollande in first-round intentions, with 27.5 percent of the vote compared to 27 percent for his Socialist rival.

Hollande, the longstanding poll-leader, was still forecast to comfortably win the May 6th second round with 54 percent to 46 percent for Sarkozy.

Sensing the threat on his left flank, Hollande has suggested to left-wing voters that a vote for Mélenchon could hand victory to the right.

“Every vote is useful,” Hollande said when asked about Mélenchon’s surge this week. “I do not want to question this or that choice by voters, but everyone must understand what is at stake.”

But Mélenchon’s supporters rejected the idea that voting for the candidate could lead to a victory for Sarkozy.

“We are pushing ideas for change,” Sebastien Goyard, a 27-year-old social security worker from Paris, said during the march.

“If we don’t vote with our principles in the first round, change is not possible,” he said.

Mélenchon, a 60-year-old former Socialist minister and senator, split with the party in 2008 to found his own party and was elected to the European Parliament in 2009.

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Leaders Sarkozy and Juppé stumble in race for Elysée

Right-wing candidates for the French presidential election face off in the first round of a US-style primary on Sunday with former president Nicolas Sarkozy and ex-prime minister Alain Juppe fighting to avoid being knocked out by an outsider.

Leaders Sarkozy and Juppé stumble in race for Elysée
Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy. Photo: AFP

In a contest overshadowed by the election of Donald Trump in the United States, support for the early favourite Juppe has slipped and Francois Fillon, who served as prime minister under Sarkozy, has risen fast.

The right-wing nominating contest is crucial because with the French left divided, the winner is expected to go on to take the presidency in May, beating far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the runoff.

Juppe, 71, entered the two-month-long contest with polls showing him to be France's most popular politician, but his approach of playing the moderate against the fiery Sarkozy and the conservative Fillon appears to be backfiring.

Most polls now show Juppe and Sarkozy are neck-and-neck at around 30 percent, with Fillon close behind after making striking progress in recent weeks.

The two winners on Sunday will go through to the second round run-off a week later.

Two becomes three

“We were expecting a duel but in the end a three-way contest has emerged,” political scientist Jerome Jaffre said in Le Figaro newspaper on Thursday.

Many have noted that 62-year-old Fillon's rise had coincided with the publication of his latest book entitled “Beating Islamic totalitarianism”.

An often confused final TV debate of the seven candidates on Thursday offered few clues about the possible outcome, although viewers polled afterwards said Fillon had performed the strongest.

Sparks flew when Sarkozy was asked about fresh claims that he received millions in funding from the late Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi towards his 2007 campaign.

Sarkozy called the question “disgraceful” and refused to answer.

Turning to the Trump effect, the former president said a more isolationist America created “a fantastic opportunity for France and Europe to re-establish a leadership role” on issues including border security and the reform of the UN Security Council.

“The next five years will mark the return of France and Europe to the international scene. America won't be there to put us in the shade,” he said.

Juppe meanwhile said the Trump-era heralded a triple “shock” — in the areas of trade, defence and the environment.

A return to protectionism would be “a tremendous regression”, Juppe said, while warning Europe against being “naive” in its dealings with the United States.

The three leading candidates have similar programmes, underpinned by pledges to reinforce domestic security in a country still under a state of emergency following a series of jihadist attacks.

They also share a desire to reinforce European borders and reduce immigration, while tax cuts also loom large.

The choice will come down to style.

Sarkozy has emphasised his tough-guy credentials, saying it makes him a better choice to handle Trump than the mild-mannered Juppe.

Fillon, who is popular in the business world, has promised “radical” economic measures but is the most conservative of the three on social issues.

Another unknown factor in Sunday's first round is the number of left-wing voters prepared to pay two euros and sign a declaration that they subscribe to “the values of the centre and the right” to vote in the right-wing primary.

Those who do are expected to vote against 61-year-old Sarkozy, who remains a highly divisive figure in France four years after he left office.

When the right-wing candidate is chosen on November 27, it is expected to trigger an announcement from deeply unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande on whether he intends to bid for re-election.

On Wednesday, Hollande's former economy minister Emmanuel Macron announced he would stand as an independent.

by AFP's Guy Jackson