As far as French politics go, there is nothing particularly exceptional about the revolutionary red posters calling for the founding of a sixth republic. "Let's take back the Bastille!" read the posters for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, ahead of a March 18 rally at Bastille Square, the place where the French Revolution began in 1789.
Tens of thousands turned out to the Bastille rally to show their support the charismatic leftist. Such crowds have characterised his campaign for the April 22 presidential election, their cheering proof that many French voters are once again thirsty for radical, left-wing, change.
The Left Front candidate Mélenchon has managed to distinguish himself apart from the usual offering of Communist stalwarts, Trotskyites, radical socialists and alter-globalisation candidates."Spirit of the Bastille we are back, the people of the revolutions and rebellions in France. We are the red flag!" he said, recalling France's revolutionary past.
Something about Mélenchon
Few would dispute the fact that Mélenchon has been the biggest revelation of the 2012 campaign. The Left Front candidate has succeeded in becoming one of the most popular candidates, becoming the first far-left politician to rank so highly in three decades. A poll conducted by Ipsos on April 13 and 14 showed the former Socialist Minister taking 14.5 per cent of the vote, steadyfor a third week.
He broke the ten per cent barrier for the first time in early March, and quickly overtook François Bayrou, the centrist candidate, and Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate.
Aside from candidates running for the left-of-centre Socialist Party, the last leftist to achieve double-digits in the polls was the French Communist Party's Georges Marchais, who won 15.35 per cent in the first round.
The far left hit all-time lows in the 2002 and 2007 elections, when the assorted "radical" candidates barely broke the five per cent barrier. Analysts argued that many working class voters had transferred their support for the far right National Front. In 2012, Mélenchon appears set to reverse that trend.
Mélenchon was born in Tangiers, Morocco, in 1951. His parents were postal workers, and the family settled in France in 1962. A Trotskyite in his youth, Mélenchon joined the Socialist Party in 1977 and stayed with the party for most of his career. He studied philosophy at the University of Franche - Comté. Prior to embarking on his political career, he worked as a teacher.
At age 35, he became France's youngest ever senator, in 1986 under Francois Mitterrand. He was appointed as minister of professional education in 2000. In November 2008 Mélenchon quit the party. Along with Martine Billard, another disaffected Socialist, he co-founded the Left Party. Shortly before the 2009 European Union elections, his party joined with other leftist parties to form the Left Front.
Mélenchon was elected to the European Parliament that year, as the Left Front's candidate for the South-West region.
Rebirth of the Left?
During his time as a Socialist senator, Mélenchon allied himself with the left faction of the party. He opposed Mitterrand's slide towards the centre of the political spectrum. Breaking with his fellow senators, he took a stance against France's support for the 1990 Gulf War.
In 1992, he supported the Maastricht Treaty, the founding document of the European Union, a decision he later regretted. He has since become a vocal opponent of the liberalism of the EU, becoming one of the leading advocates of the "No" vote in France's 2005 referendum on changes to strengthen the European Constitution.
He backed Laurent Fabius's unsuccessful bid to become the Socialists’ 2007 presidential candidate, on the grounds that Fabius had opposed the changes to the EU constitution.
During the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency, many on the left have criticised the Socialist Party for failing to voice stronger criticism of his government’s policies, and for failing to offer an alternative to the path of economic liberalism.
"The [political] orientations that dominate the European social democracy have prevailed, even though they lead to failure everywhere," Mélenchon wrote in a blog entry in 2008, when he broke with the Socialist Party.
"They swallow the Europe of the Lisbon Treaty, of fickle alliances, of abstention before the [political] Right, and refuse to question capitalism."Having positioned himself as being against the system, Mélenchon has won support from those disaffected by the Socialists and their 2012 candidate, Francois Hollande.
Mélenchon argues for a return to the values of Jean Jaurès, the founder of French republican socialism.Though not himself a Communist, he has frequently criticised free-market capitalism and has drawn backing from the flailing French Communist Party.
He stirred controversy when he called David Pujadas, a television presenter for France 2 television, a "stooge" and a "bastard," in reaction to an interview between Pujadas and a union leader. Despite his leftist credentials, Mélenchon has come under scrutiny for his salary and lifestyle, which critics argue contradict his leftist positions.
In March, he told Le Croix newspaper that he opposed the publication of candidates’ salaries assets and potential conflicts of interest, although he supports the declaration of any such assets to the electoral authorities. "Transparency should not be a neurotic requirement," he said. "I am not a public man, but a private man who has public activities."
He later revealed his salary as an elected member of the European Parliament, which is $8,138 a month. His assets amount to $945,570; less than the other top ranking candidates.
Neither is the Left Front candidate without his critics on the left. Daniel Cohn Bendit, a student leader of the May 1968 unrest and current member of European Parliament for the European Green Party, has dismissed Mélenchon as being "simplistic" and of playing on nostalgia for the 1970s. "Live is not as simple as a Jean-Luc Mélenchon speech," he told the Reuters news agency in early April. "The emergence of this left - Jacobin, centralist and caricatural - is a windfall for Nicolas Sarkozy."