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Late surge gives leftist firebrand shot at French vote run-off

Jean-Luc Mélenchon has growing momentum in the polls and could yet face French President Emmanuel Macron in the second round of the presidential election.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon takes part in a campaign march in Paris.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon takes part in a campaign march in Paris. He could still make it to the second round. (Photo by Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP)

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a divisive but charismatic 70-year-old leftist, is in possible contention to make a French presidential election run-off against Emmanuel Macron as traditional socialist forces fall by the wayside.

With Macron way ahead in polls for the first round on April 10, far-right leader Marine Le Pen remains favourite to make the second round, but analysts give far-leftist Mélenchon a chance if he can maintain his current momentum.

While other leftist candidates are stagnating or losing ground, Mélenchon — who has likened himself to a “sagacious tortoise” — is steadily progressing towards the finishing line.

“This tortoise has already overtaken quite a few hares,” he told supporters this week.

Mélenchon could be helped by Le Pen facing a crowded field on the right with extreme-rightwinger Eric Zemmour likely to soak up some of her votes even if his star is now fading.

Meanwhile, Socialist party candidate Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, has seen her poll ratings melt down and the campaign of Green candidate Yannick Jadot has yet to ignite.

“He (Mélenchon) is the only figure that’s left standing, a charismatic figure who’s managing now, it seems, to mobilise larger parts of the left than one would have expected,” said Philip Golub, a professor of political science and international relations at the American University of Paris.

“He has the ability to connect to the left-wing populations that find themselves orphaned as far as their traditional parties are concerned,” he told AFP.

‘Could get in’

Cluster17, an opinion analysis institute, now has Mélenchon at 14.5 percent of voting intentions, up from around 12 six months ago, while some recent polls even see him above the 15-percent mark.

Many polls, meanwhile, credit Le Pen with intentions in the high teens, but Cluster17’s president Jean-Yves Dormagen told AFP that her voting score has in the past often fallen well short of predictions.

“If this is the case again this time around, she may get 14 or 15 percent instead of the 18 or 19 that people are expecting,” he said.

“So we can’t rule out that the qualification threshold is around 15 percent, in which case Mélenchon could get in.”

In the last election in 2017, Mélenchon, who heads the “France Unbowed” party, won 19.6 percent of the first round vote, coming in fourth.

A repeat of a similar score now seems unlikely, partly because Mélenchon has lost much working-class support to Le Pen, but also because he has alienated some voters with a number of conspiracy theories and his apparent support for Vladimir Putin in the run-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

His anti-German positions, meanwhile, would not sit well with France’s biggest partner in the European Union, and his anti-American rhetoric now seems at odds with increasing French cooperation with Washington within NATO.

“Only 16 percent of French people believe that Mélenchon projects a positive image of France abroad,” said Gilles Finchelstein at the Fondation Jean Jaures, a left-leaning think tank. “Only 20 percent believe that he’s got the right stuff to be president,” he said.

‘Not a great fan’

Even his own activists admit that Mélenchon does not always make it easy for them.

“I’m not a great fan of the man, but I’m a great fan of his programme,” Anne, 37, told AFP at a Mélenchon election rally that, according to organisers, drew 100,000 people on Paris’s Place de la Republique.

“He can be a bit polarising sometimes, but he’s got integrity,” said Hugo, 40, at the rally.

Mélenchon has vowed to cut the statutory retirement age to 60 years from 62, while Macron has announced plans to raise it to 65.

He would also immediately boost the minimum wage to a monthly 1,400 euros ($1,540) from around 1,250 now, and cap energy and food prices.

“This election is a social referendum,” Mélenchon told the rally. “Never forget that a different world is possible.”

But a Mélenchon victory over Macron is almost impossible, pollsters say, with the president currently polling at over 27 percent for the first round and projected to beat any rival in the second round.

“It’s unlikely that Mélenchon would win in the second round, but he would offer a political and intellectual alternative that we haven’t seen in France for a long time,” said Golub at AUP. “It would definitely be interesting.”

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POLITICS

Prosecutors: No new rape inquiry for France’s disabilities minister

France's disabilities minister will not face a new inquiry "as things stand" over a rape allegation that surfaced just after his nomination by President Emmanuel Macron last week, prosecutors have said, citing the anonymity of the alleged victim.

Prosecutors: No new rape inquiry for France's disabilities minister

Damien Abad has faced growing pressure to resign after the news website Mediapart reported the assault claims by two women dating from over a decade ago, which he has denied.

One of the women, identified only by her first name, Margaux, filed a rape complaint in 2017 that was later dismissed by prosecutors.

The other woman, known only as Chloe, told Mediapart that in 2010 she had blacked out after accepting a glass of champagne from Abad at a bar in Paris, and woke up in her underwear in pain with him in a hotel room. She believes she may have been drugged.

She did not file an official complaint, but the Paris prosecutors’ office said it was looking into the case after being informed by the Observatory of Sexist and Sexual Violence in Politics, a group formed by members of France’s MeToo movement.

“As things stand, the Paris prosecutors’ office is not following up on the letter” from the observatory, it said, citing “the inability to identify the victim of the alleged acts and therefore the impossibility of proceeding to a hearing.”

In cases of sexual assault against adults, Paris prosecutors can open an inquiry only if an official complaint is made, meaning the victim must give their identity.

Abad has rejected the calls to resign in order to ensure the new government’s “exemplarity,” saying that he is innocent and that his own condition of arthrogryposis, which limits the movement of his joints, means sexual relations can occur only with the help of a partner.

The appointment of Abad as minister for solidarities and people with disabilities in a reshuffle last Friday was seen as a major coup for Macron, as the 42-year-old had defected from the right-wing opposition.

The new prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, said she was unaware of the allegations before Abad’s nomination, but insisted that “If there is new information, if a new complaint is filed, we will draw all the consequences.”

The claims could loom large over parliamentary elections next month, when Macron is hoping to secure a solid majority for his reformist agenda. Abad will be standing for re-election in the Ain department north of Lyon.

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