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The French go to the polls Sunday to choose between 10 candidates for president. The top two vote getters will face off in two weeks. One of the big surprises this year has been the resurgence of the radical left.

As NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, their candidate has emerged from obscurity to become the most dynamic figure of the campaign.

JEAN-LUC MELENCHON: (Foreign language spoken)


ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Jean-Luc Melenchon's public rallies have easily rivaled those of mainstream candidates President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist front-runner Francois Hollande. A recent gathering at Paris' Bastille monument drew an estimated 100,000 fervent Melenchon supporters who listened to him in rapt attention.

MELENCHON: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: They're wondering what is this phenomenon that filled this huge plaza, said Melenchon. We call it the citizens' revolution, and it has just begun.


BEARDSLEY: 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 the oppression of Europe by financial markets. The Bastille crowd waved red flags and booed references to the rich. Retirees Claude and Annie Kossura traveled several hours from eastern France to hear Melenchon.

CLAUDE KOSSURA: (Through Translator) He represents values like sharing that have all but disappeared today in the face of the myth of money. Citizens don't feel part of their nation anymore. We belong to globalized markets and speculators. That has to change.

BEARDSLEY: 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. Melenchon and Le Pen now battle it out for third place behind mainstream candidates 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.


BEARDSLEY: Take the power on me, Jean Luc. I want to be your Bastille, croons the young blonde 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.

JEAN MARC ILLOUZ: Melenchon is some sort of a Tea Party leftist. 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.

BEARDSLEY: A 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 he isn't dangerous by saying: But we are very dangerous.


BEARDSLEY: His Bastille rally ended with a heartfelt chorus of the Marxist anthem "The Internationale." So, comrades, come rally. Servile masses, arise, arise, sang the crowd.


BEARDSLEY: Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.



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