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French far-left leader picks election fight with National Front leader Marine Le Pen

By John Lichfield in Paris

Two of the biggest mouths, and biggest egos, in European politics will go head-to-head next month in a small ex-mining town in northern France.

The French hard-left leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has decided to challenge the far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the constituency near Lille in which she has high hopes of winning a seat in parliament on 17 June.

The contest will be a "third place" play-off for the two populist candidates who spent much of this spring's presidential election campaign exchanging insults. Mr Mélenchon called Ms Le Pen a "political yeti" and "semi-demented". He appeared at one stage to have overtaken her in the battle for third place but slumped finally to fourth with 11 per cent in the first round on 22 April.

Ms Le Pen, who scored 17.9 per cent, is trying to laugh off Mr Mélenchon's decision to pursue their personal vendetta into the parliamentary elections. "This is not rage – it's love," she said. "He can't live without me."

Ms Le Pen has been nursing the constituency of Hénin-Beaumont in the Pas-de-Calais for years. She has a seat on the town council and narrowly lost the last contest for a parliamentary seat to a Socialist candidate in 2007. Just south of Lille, Hénin-Beaumont is a typical, small ex-mining town with high unemployment and an entrenched Socialist political machine. The constituency is one of a handful of seats in the National Assembly which the National Front has hopes of winning in the two-round polls on 10 and 17 June.

Mr Mélenchon announced he was standing in Hénin-Beaumont for his Front de Gauche, a coalition of hard-left parties. National Front officials accused him of a cynical act of "parachutage" into a part of France with which he had no connection.

Mr Mélenchon retorted that Ms Le Pen was hardly a miner's daughter. "This area is the cradle of the workers' struggle and Marine Le Pen, who lives in the Château de Montretout, chose to implant herself there," he said.

Ms Le Pen's taunt has an element of truth. Mr Mélenchon defines his success on his ability to reclaim blue-collar workers who have abandoned the left for the National Front. Both are anti-European, anti-market nationalists. The difference, Mr Mélenchon says, is "that she says the crisis is all the fault of the immigrants. I say it's the fault of the bankers".

In the parliamentary elections, any candidate who takes more that 12.5 per cent of the vote can contest the second round. In the first round, Hénin-Beaumont is likely to be a three-way fight between Ms Le Pen, Mr Mélenchon and the Socialist candidate. Under a pact, only the leading left-wing candidate goes forward, so Mr Mélenchon could end up in a head-on contest with Ms Le Pen in the second round.

Belfast Telegraph


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