PARIS (Reuters) - France’s Socialist presidential candidate Francois Hollande, the favorite to win the April-May election, is under fresh pressure to court the far left after a radical rival managed to organize the biggest rally of the campaign so far.
Hollande, who polls show should soundly beat incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy in the election’s second round runoff, finds himself in the awkward position of being upstaged - at least temporarily - by Jean-Luc Melenchon, a firebrand leftist who heads a group of radical left parties, including Communists.
Though he has enjoyed a recent surge in support, Melenchon appears highly unlikely to beat Hollande into the runoff to face Sarkozy. But Melenchon’s proven ability to unite the far left and bring tens of thousands of angry voters onto the streets means Hollande cannot afford to ignore, let alone alienate him.
On Monday, Hollande sought to downplay the impact of Sunday’s giant pro-Melenchon rally that saw an estimated 120,000 people march on the Bastille in a symbolic show of discontent, and carefully tempered his criticism.
“Anger is respectable, it’s dignified, it’s even legitimate when there are so many difficulties for our citizens,” Hollande told France Info radio. “But anger must be translated into a willingness for change. That’s what I‘m bringing.”
The estimate of 120,000 people came from the organizers themselves. The police declined to provide their own estimate due to the event’s political nature in an election year.
Melenchon has become a powerful force in France’s election campaign in the past few weeks, successfully channeling frustration about economic ills ranging from high unemployment to slow growth and a spate of industrial shutdowns.
The one-time Trotskyist - whose blunt rhetoric contrasts sharply with Hollande’s more measured style - would win 10 percent of the first round vote, opinion polls show, nearly double his level of support last December.
His ratings surge is not enough to stop either Hollande or Sarkozy - who both command support of around 27.5 percent in the polls - from going through to the decisive second round runoff.
But Melenchon’s growing influence on the campaign, as witnessed by the huge turnout at the weekend rally at Paris’ Place de la Bastille, is forcing the centre-left Hollande to make concessions to his firebrand rival.
Acutely aware that left-wing voters do not want divisions within their own camp to derail their main goal of unseating Sarkozy and stopping far-right chief Marine Le Pen, Hollande is treading carefully.
“Francois Hollande really needs the transfer of votes from Jean-Luc Melenchon,” said Stephane Rozes, head of the Cap political consultancy.
Nor will Melenchon risk putting Hollande’s “back to the wall”, Rozes added, as he knows this could damage his own credibility if he later decides to endorse Hollande for the second round.
Hollande’s aides insist their candidate is the Left’s only realistic hope of winning power.
Manuel Valls, one of his campaign spokesmen, told RTL radio that Hollande was “the only one who could unite a majority of French,” while another, Delphine Batho, told the daily Liberation newspaper that the Socialist party remained “the spinal column” of the Left.
Still, Hollande may need to do more to appease Melenchon’s supporters than merely holding out the possibility of the Left winning the presidency, pollsters say.
“The principal reflex until now has been a reminder for unity and the idea of the ‘useful vote’... They need other signals to the Leftist electorate,” said Jerome Fourquet, an Ifop pollster. “But I think that’s not enough to stop the (Melenchon) trend.”
In February, Hollande surprised many, including some of his own supporters, when he proposed a top tax rate of 75 percent on people earning over a million euros a year. Political experts interpreted the move as a concession to the radical fringe led by Melenchon.
An editorial in the conservative daily newspaper Le Figaro described Hollande as a quiet social-democrat “who, because of the campaign, is transforming himself into a global enemy (of finance) and raging against the famous ‘wall of money’.”
Graphic: French election polls r.reuters.com/was36s
Melenchon’s growing popularity could push Hollande into offering further concessions. Both Hollande and Sarkozy have already come out with tougher proposals on taxing wealth inequality and executive pay in apparent response to Melenchon’s own radical suggestions.
“Melenchon says, ‘The more people are behind me, the more we’ll have guarantees that policies adopted by Hollande, if elected, will be from the Left,'” said pollster Fourquet.
The rally at the Bastille, site of the notorious former prison stormed by an angry mob in France’s 1789 revolution, was a powerful visual symbol of Melenchon’s rising influence.
The gathering reportedly attracted a better-than-expected 120,000 people who came out to hear the radical leader call for a “citizens’ insurrection.”
The rise of Melenchon complicates Hollande’s attempts to rally support from the centre.
Centrist Francois Bayrou is currently fourth in the polls behind Le Pen for the first round vote with between 10 and 13 percent of the vote. Luring some of Bayrou’s voters will be key to any Hollande victory in the second round and that means he has to be careful not to make too many concessions to the far left that could alienate such voters.
Mindful that a strong performance in the first round would help him build momentum for the crucial run-off, Hollande appealed to left-wing voters not to waste their votes in the first round.
“We are five weeks from the election, (and) I will continue to say that a vote must be effective,” Hollande said. “The first round isn’t merely a vote used to vent your anger, your exasperation, your personal preference. It’s the groundwork that prepares the second round.”
Additional reporting By Daniel Flynn; Editing by Nicholas Vinocur and Andrew Osborn