French left rally behind anti-NATO Mélenchon
France’s far-left presidential hopeful Jean-Luc Mélenchon drew crowds of tens of thousands at an outdoor rally in Toulouse on Thursday, where he called for a return to national sovereignty and told supporters that France should withdraw from NATO.
REUTERS - French firebrand leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon made a show of force in the southern city of Toulouse on Thursday, drawing tens of thousands of supporters to a rally in which he called for France to withdraw from NATO and harked back to revolutionary times.
Melenchon, leader of a group of far-left parties, is riding a wave of enthusiasm for his presidential campaign that has lifted him above far-right chief Marine Le Pen in some polls just three weeks from the first round of a two-stage election.
As he fights with Le Pen for third place behind Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande and President Nicolas Sarkozy, Melenchon aims to maintain momentum from last month when he drew huge crowds to rally on Paris' Bastille place.
At his rally in Toulouse, which he dubbed a sequel to Paris' "spirit of La Bastille" speech, Melenchon spoke in typically fiery tones to a crowd that filled out the city's main square,
La Place du Capitole, and many of the surrounding streets.
"When there is no more liberty, civil insurrection becomes a sacred duty of the Republic," he said, pausing for cheers to die down as the crowd waved dozens of flags.
Melenchon also made an appeal for French sovereignty over international groupings, like the European Union, which he said "strangle the voice of the people", repeating his call to pull France out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).
While French police do not provide attendances estimates for political rallies during a campaign, a Reuters correspondent said at least 25,000 people had attended. Organisers linked to Melenchon's Left Front said 50,000 had shown up.
As the election draws near, Melenchon's popularity with voters frustrated by high unemployment and industrial decline has drained support from Hollande, who many polls show in second place behind Sarkozy in the April 22 first round vote.
In an IFOP poll published on April 5, Melenchon had 13 percent of the vote in the election's first round on April 22, versus 16 percent for Le Pen. Sarkozy stood in first position with 28.5 percent versus 26.5 percent for Hollande.
However, most polls still show Hollande beating Sarkozy in the final run-off round on May 6 by a comfortable margin.