NANTES, France -- Far-left French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon embraced migrants and Russia and derided campaign rivals Sunday as he sought to reinvigorate his flagging campaign for April’s election with an unusual “immersive and olfactory” rally.
Yes, olfactory: The campaign team diffused various smells into the exhibition hall in the western city of Nantes, surrounding participants with screens and speakers.
While the videos were powerful, with ocean waves and starscapes transporting the crowd as Melenchon talked about sea pollution and the dangers of wars in space, the aromatic part was a bit of a flop. The masked crowd had trouble smelling anything at all, or identifying the scents -- some described fruity or marine aromas, others reportedly smelled gasoline — or their connection to what Melenchon was saying.
The event came as the once-powerful French left wing is deeply fractured and struggling to make its voice heard in a campaign where far-right and conservative figures have grabbed most of the attention so far. Melenchon — a political firebrand with a notorious temper — refuses to form a united front with other left-wing candidates against centrist President Emmanuel Macron, who’s expected to seek re-election.
At Sunday's rally, Melenchon promised to guarantee jobs for everyone, raise the minimum wage, lower the retirement age to 60 and hike taxes on multinationals and rich households. His campaign platform calls for France to pull out of NATO, disobey EU rules, legalize cannabis, renationalize some businesses, block energy price rises, and spend more on fighting racial and other discrimination.
While other candidates are railing against migration, Melenchon said migrants are “welcome” in France, calling immigration the “No. 1 factor" in human progress.
He also proudly called Russia a “partner," even as European governments are scrambling to find ways to avert a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine.
And he had little kindness for his rivals on the left.
“We don't need union. We need clarity and people's mobilization,” he said. “I'm not their friend.”
Melenchon has criticized the French government’s vaccine and virus rules as too restrictive, but his team distributed masks at the entrance to Sunday's event.
The 70-year-old Melenchon drew attention in the 2017 presidential race for holding simultaneous campaign rallies via hologram. A similar show is planned for early April.
He was the strongest-performing left-wing candidate in 2017, winning 19.6% of the vote, but came in fourth. This time there are six left-wing candidates vying for the April 10 first-round vote, and polls suggest none will make the likely runoff of the top two vote-getters on April 24.
Many voters are undecided and the field of candidates is still shifting. According to pollsters, Macron's strongest challengers so far are far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who he beat in the 2017 runoff; conservative Republicans candidate Valerie Pecresse, who visited a migrant camp in Greece this weekend to push for stemming migration to Europe; and populist far-right pundit Eric Zemmour, who has been repeatedly convicted of hate speech.
Other contenders include Socialist Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, Greens party candidate Yannick Jadot, and former justice minister Christiane Taubira.