Running on a platform of wealth redistribution, French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon polls in first place among young voters. A new pro-Melenchon video game attests to how deep the fandom goes.
In the days before the first round of French presidential elections, left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon got a gift from video gamers. A group of anonymous developers released an online game called Fiscal Kombat in which players are invited to take on the role of a cartoon version of Melenchon, walking around and shaking money from the pockets of "oligarchs" to pay off the national debt.
A tribute to the candidate's leftist platform, Fiscal Kombat was the result of organizing among politically active gamers. But it was also the result of a concerted effort by Melenchon's campaign to connect with young, online communities - a cornerstone of his candidacy.
Melenchon: the game
Designed to mimic early 1990s video games like Mortal Kombat, Fiscal Kombat is a vulgarization of Melenchon's plan to tax all annual income over 400,000 euros (430,000 USD) at 100 percent.
With limited range of moves, players earn points in the form of cash by moving across the screen and shaking money from suit-wearing bad guys, every now and then confronting a boss who represents a real-world target of Melenchon's criticism: Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde, or French presidential front-runner and former banker Emmanuel Macron. The confiscated funds from everyone who plays are added to a collective treasury with the objective of paying off France's national debt.
The game Fiscal Kombat allows players to confiscate money from suit-wearing agressors and donate it to public funds
"It's a bit of a caricature," says Miidnight, one of the game's creators, who spoke to DW using his online pseudonym. "But it's still a critique of the power of money in France."
Fiscal Kombat is meant to entertain while guiding players to Melenchon's official website. "We're hoping to reach people who wouldn't necessarily know about his platform, or otherwise just entertain his campaigners."
Released on April 7, a little over two weeks before the April 23 first-round election, Fiscal Kombat was played by 500,000 unique visitors in the first four days, and has gained international attention as the most sophisticated video game to promote a French candidate.
A project developed in chat rooms
The game was designed by a few dozen developers who remain anonymous - even within their group. Sharing a common computer server, they collaborated across a gamer platform called Discord and never met in person. Only after finishing the design did they contact Melenchon's team, which fully endorsed it.
French candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon has enjoyed a sharp rise in polls in the weeks before the 2017 elections
"We don't know each other at all," says Miidnight. "We've worked on a lot of projects, and it has run pretty smoothly."
The idea for Fiscal Kombat came out of a pro-Melenchon discussion late last year within a forum for 18- to 25-year-old gamers on the popular website JeuxVideo.com. Several of the more active participants, including the developer Miidnight, moved their discussion to Discord, a platform which also harbors far-right chat rooms akin to those found on the websites Reddit and 4chan.
Using the largely unregulated forum, the group called itself Discord Les Insoumis, playing off the name of the left-wing candidate's self-organized party La France Insoumise ("Unsubmissive France").
In addition to the recent video game, Discord Les Insoumis has created Melenphone.fr, a platform for organizing volunteers to make campaign calls on Melenchon's behalf from their private phones. They also created MelenSchack.fr, a collection of pro-Melenchon memes, and built an online calculator where visitors can enter their salary to see how much more or less they would contribute under Melenchon's proposed tax plan.
Jean-Luc Melenchon (center) was the most positively-mentioned candidate on social media during recent televised debates
Courting the youth
Support from young voters is central to Melenchon's candidacy. Despite being in fourth place in the polls overall, he is the most popular candidate among voters aged 18 to 24, according to an April poll from the ELABE Institute.
An outsize reach on social media has made Melenchon visible to an internet-savvy audience. His official YouTube channel has nine times more subscribers than the two front-runners Macron and Marine Le Pen combined. He also has over a million followers on Twitter, second only to Le Pen.
Although his team did not develop Fiscal Kombat, the 65-year-old candidate filmed himself playing the game and posted a screenshot from it as the background of his Twitter profile. When the number of players of the game surpassed 400,000, he celebrated with a tweet.
Melenchon has also experimented with hologram technology, allowing him to hold an April 18 campaign rally in seven different cities simultaneously.
"The digital part of his campaign is clearly meant to speak to young people," says Jeremy Crombez, a 28-year-old Melenchon campaigner working in Lyon and Marseille.
Crombez was active in the Discord Les Insoumis group and designed a separate video game for mobile phones called Samourai Insoumis. He recalls that his application was inspired by a video on YouTube in which Melenchon discusses the beauty of video games, virtual reality technology, and how they complement his socialist vision.
For Crombez, Melenchon's call to redistribute wealth in France is what got him interested in the leftist platform. The Socialist Party's Benoit Hamon is the only other candidate that speaks to Crombez's views, but he says he would not vote for a representative of current president Francois Hollande's party. "For about 30 years now," he says, "the Socialist Party has been moving away from the left."
In the final weeks of the elections, Crombez plans to do legwork for Melenchon's one-year-old party Unsubmissive France, not online but in the streets. He will be hanging posters, handing out fliers, and helping to organize meetings.
"I consider myself a campaigner for Unsubmissive France now," says Crombez, "even though that wasn't the case when I started working on the video game."