Far-left Melenchon emerges as third competitor in French election poll

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Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of far-left opposition La France Insoumise (France Unbowed - LFI) political party and candidate for the 2022 French presidential election, attends the annual conference about poor housing conditions in France, organised by Fondation Abbe Pierre, in Paris, France, February 2, 2022. REUTERS/Sarah Meyssonnier/File Photo

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PARIS, March 9 (Reuters) - French leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon inched closer to a place in the crucial runoff of the French presidential election in a poll on Wednesday, appearing to gain momentum just as far-right rivals are hit by their pro-Russian views.

Melenchon, a 70-year old former Socialist minister, moved to third place in an Elabe poll of voting intentions for the first round for BFM Television, jumping above far-right contender Eric Zemmour, who has been in free fall since the invasion of Ukraine.

Melenchon, who is running for president for the third time, was up 0.5 percentage point at 13%, ahead of Zemmour's 11%, down 3 points, and behind far-right leader Marine Le Pen's 15%, down 2 points. French President Emmanuel Macron was far ahead, gaining 8.5 points to stand at 33.5% in the April 10 first round.

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"The fact I could reach the second round changes the political discourse," Melenchon told a news conference, adding that it was a sign rising prices was replacing immigration as the priority for public opinion. "It's a more classic left-right debate. Instead of this incredible situation where you have people arguing about Muslims."

The war in Ukraine has upended the French election campaign, giving a boost to Macron, who has benefitted from his frenetic diplomatic efforts to mediate between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

It has also hurt those who had expressed overt pro-Putin views such as Zemmour, who once said Putin could have been French, and Le Pen, who had travelled to Moscow to meet the Russian leader during the last presidential campaign.

Both have had to justify their past support and had to issue condemnations of the war in Ukraine, which Moscow calls a "special military operation".

Melenchon, who wants France to leave NATO and has been accused by other opponents of complacency towards Russia, has suffered less from his previously Russophile stance than other candidates, thanks to a surge of support from left-wing voters who are rallying behind the best-placed candidate on the left.

One left-wing candidate, Christiane Taubira, failed to garner the 500 endorsements necessary to run for president, and her supporters decided to endorse Melenchon instead. Other left-wing candidates -- Yannick Jadot from the Greens and Socialist Anne Hidalgo -- have languished at or below 5% in the polls.

However, polls show Macron winning hands down against all candidates, including Melenchon, who advocates for capital controls, the 32-hour workweek and a return to the pension age at 60. The April 24 runoff would see Macron win 68.5% to 31.5% against Melenchon.

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Reporting by Michel Rose and Noemie Olive; editing by Jonathan Oatis

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