PARIS (Reuters) - He won’t win or even reach the decisive run-off, but hard left contender Jean-Luc Melenchon has ridden a wave of nostalgia for the barricades to become the star turn of France’s presidential election campaign.
Branding himself “the sound and the fury” after the William Faulkner novel of the same name, the Communist-backed former Trotskyist is shaking up the campaign with his fiery oratory and revolutionary call to arms.
Latest opinion polls show him storming into third place in voting intentions for the April 22 first round, still well behind conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Francois Hollande, but overtaking far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, his bitter rival for working class votes.
Opinion polls now credit Melenchon, 60, with up to 15 percent of the vote, more than twice what he commanded in January. He has vacuumed up most of the protest vote previously split among Trotskyist, Communist, left-sovereignist and Green candidates.
He staged another show of force in the southern city of Toulouse on Thursday, drawing tens of thousands to an open-air rally in the central Place du Capitole at which he called for France to reassert its sovereignty and withdraw from the NATO defense alliance.
“When there is no more liberty, civil insurrection becomes a sacred duty of the Republic,” Melenchon declared to cheers from supporters waving red flags.
In March, he drew an even bigger crowd for a march to the Place de la Bastille in Paris, symbolically re-enacting the capture of the ancient regime fortress that was a high point of the 1789 French Revolution.
His platform promises to raise the minimum wage to 1,700 euros ($2,200) a month, cap incomes at 360,000 euros a year, confiscating anything above that limit, reinstate retirement at 60 for all and ban profitable companies from laying off workers.
So far, analysts reckon he has done Hollande a favor by mobilizing industrial workers, students and the unemployed, who might have stayed home or voted for Le Pen. Polls show 70-90 percent of his supporters intend to vote for Hollande in the run-off.
But if he gets too big a score, it could scare middle-class and centrist voters into backing Sarkozy in the decisive ballot. The president has begun to warn voters that Hollande would be a “hostage to Melenchon”.
Melenchon’s campaign spokeswoman, Clementine Autain, made clear on Friday his party would seek both policy concessions and cabinet seats, saying: “We would like to see the political conditions emerge for us to take part in a government.”
Melenchon, a former senator and European Parliament member, served as minister for vocational training under Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin from 2000 to 2002 but relishes being an outsider.
A child of the 1968 student-worker uprising, he makes no apologies for his straight talk and independent spirit, which in the past have seen him expelled from the Internationalist Communist Organisation, quit the Socialists, and eventually form his own more radical movement, the Left Party.
He plays on fears of unbridled globalization undercutting French workers’ living standards, and on hostility to the European Union’s free market policies.
He was one of the leaders of the “No” campaign in a 2005 French referendum that rejected a European Union constitution and is now demanding a plebiscite on the treaty on budget discipline signed by EU leaders in March.
“I’ve got a strong temperament. What do you expect? You wouldn’t want a damp squib to face up to this kind of challenge,” he said in recent television interview.
Of his private life, he is famously taciturn, shunning what he calls the personality cult that surrounds modern-day politicians.
An unauthorized biography, “Melenchon, the Plebeian”, says he married in the 1970s, divorced in the mid-1990s and has one daughter, born in 1974, but his campaign team has refused to confirm any details unrelated to his political career.
Much of his attraction lies in his mastery of public oratory - complete with emphatic finger-jabbing - honed during his time with the Communists, tempered with a judicious smattering of literary and historical reference and capped with a razor-sharp wit.
He derided Hollande early in the campaign as a “pedal-boat captain”, suggesting he couldn’t be relied on to steer a firm course in a storm.
He peppers his speeches with quotations from leftist heroes such as Jean Jaures, one of the founding fathers of French socialism, and references to the tradition of the French Revolution.
“Once again, you will have to be the crater from which the new flame of revolution erupts, lighting the fire of contagion that will become the common cause of the peoples of Europe,” Melenchon declared in his Toulouse speech.
He was accused of demagogy and populism after publishing a book in 2010 calling for a citizens’ revolution entitled “Qu‘ils s‘en aillent tous” (“Get rid of the lot of them”).
Melenchon’s passionate call for a fairer society and derision of what he sees as the intellectual snobbery of the left-wing establishment have found support with voters alienated by the centre-left’s embrace of the market economy.
He has also capitalized on the disgrace of former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who had been favorite for the Socialist nomination until he was arrested on sexual assault charges, later dropped, in New York last May.
Melenchon described himself from the outset as the “anti-IMF” candidate, accusing Strauss-Kahn of having imposed policies that drove the Greek people to ruin.
While Hollande was the principal beneficiary of Strauss-Kahn’s demise and hopes to gain from Melenchon’s re-invigoration of the left, Melenchon has a much grander ambition than to be handmaiden to an Hollande victory.
“We’re not the shovel brigade of the Socialist Party but the locomotive of the entire left,” he said.
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(This version of the story corrects the reference to the Communist Party in paragraph 13)
Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Will Waterman