Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images
Jean-Luc Melenchon, the Left Front presidential candidate, draws huge crowds, rivaling those of mainstream candidates Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande. Here, he delivers a speech during a campaign meeting on April 1 in Grigny, outside Paris.
The French go to the polls Sunday to choose among 10 candidates for president, and opinion surveys suggest the outcome will be a runoff between the two main figures, incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist candidate Francois Hollande.
But one of the big surprises of the race so far has been the resurgence of the radical left, whose candidate has gone from obscurity to becoming the most dynamic figure of the campaign.
Jean-Luc Melenchon's public rallies have easily rivaled those of Sarkozy and Hollande. A recent gathering at Paris' Bastille monument drew an estimated 100,000 fervent Melenchon supporters, who listened to him in rapt attention.
"They're wondering what is this phenomenon that fills this huge plaza," says Melenchon. "We call it the citizens' revolution, and it has just begun."
Melenchon proposes a popular insurrection to create a new French republic — one that will massively boost the minimum wage and make it illegal for profitable companies to lay off workers.
He slices up French bankers and businessmen with his sharp wit, and has declared solidarity with the debt-ridden Greek people while denouncing what he calls the oppression of Europe by financial markets.
An estimated 100,000 Melanchon supporters gathered to hear the candidate speak at a rally at Paris' Bastille monument last month.
An estimated 100,000 Melanchon supporters gathered to hear the candidate speak at a rally at Paris' Bastille monument last month. Yoan Valat/EPA/Landov
The Bastille crowd waved red flags and booed references to the rich. Among them were retirees Claude and Annie Kossura, who traveled several hours from eastern France to hear Melenchon.
"He represents values like sharing that have all but disappeared today in the face of the myth of money," says Claude Kossura. "Citizens don't feel part of their nation anymore — we belong to globalized markets and speculators. That has to change."
Helped along by the economic crisis, Melenchon has tapped into working-class anger over wage inequality, the decline of French industry, and global capitalism gone wild.
Sprinkle in a little anti-immigrant rhetoric, and this is the same platform that has boosted another fringe candidate — far-right leader Marine Le Pen. In the latest opinion polls, Melenchon and Le Pen are now battling it out for third place behind Sarkozy and Hollande.
With his mane of thick, graying hair and trademark red tie, Melenchon — a former Trotskyist turned teacher — has become a sensation.
A catchy pop tune about Melenchon became a hit on YouTube. "Take the power on me, Jean Luc, I wanna be your Bastille," croons the young blond starlet. Nobody seemed to care that the video turned out to have been produced by an ad agency bored with the campaign; it all added to the Melenchon buzz.
Journalist Jean Marc Illouz says Melenchon has struck a nerve with his revolutionary rhetoric and values.
"Melenchon is some sort of a Tea Party leftist," says Illouz. "He's a populist, and he attracts people that are disoriented by globalization and that do not trust the Socialist candidate Francois Hollande to be able to really fight against the capitalists."
The Melenchon surge has been awkward for Hollande, who needs the support of the far left without scaring off centrist voters. Sarkozy has warned that if elected, Hollande will be a hostage to Melenchon.
If elected president, Hollande might find it difficult to balance the demands of world financial markets and a revitalized French left. Melenchon has mocked Hollande's reassurance to markets that Hollande isn't dangerous by saying, "But we are very dangerous."
Melenchon's Bastille rally ended with a heartfelt chorus of the Marxist anthem "The International."
"So comrades, come rally," sang the crowd. "Servile masses, arise, arise."