At the start of France's bitterly contested presidential election campaign, critics predicted that Jean-Luc Melenchon's confrontational approach to politics - including calls for "civic insurrection" and talk of a 100 per cent tax-band for those earning more than €1 million - would see him shot down in flames well before the first round in three weeks.

Instead, the French seem to be taking to him. Opinion polls put Melenchon on as much as 14 per cent and rising, placing him above perennial middle man Francois Bayrou and snapping at the heels of Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right Front National, who is in third place.

Melenchon, 60, who graduated in philosophy, represents the Front de Gauche, or Left Party, having abandoned the Socialist Party in 2008. He is standing on an eclectic manifesto entitled "Humans First".

Some on the left have expressed fears that the popularity of Melenchon's radical programme could threaten the Socialist candidate Francois Hollande, who will need to harvest Left Party votes in an eventual run-off against incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy. The danger for Hollande is that drifting too far on to Melenchon's terrain could alienate centrist voters he also needs.


Melenchon, an entertaining loose cannon, has described Hollande as being as useful as the "captain of a pedalo" in a storm. But his most virulent outbursts are aimed at Le Pen, whom he has called a "filthy beast spitting hatred", a "bat" and a "dark presence". His programme veers from workers' rights, controlling the banks, ending market speculation, escaping from the European Union in its current form and forging a new alliance to ecological planning and dismantling Nato.

In a speech on Saturday he moved from getting rid of the French diplomatic service and the "absurd free market" and "taking apart all organisations that represent north American hegemony" to arguing the merits of France's Ariane space project and strengthening the UN.

It is an ambitious programme, but one that the former teacher and government minister - who like all the lesser candidates benefits from rules giving everyone equal broadcast time - defends bullishly.

Polls suggest Hollande and Sarkozy will be neck and neck with around 28 per cent in the first round of the election on April 23, but give Hollande victory with 54 per cent against Sarkozy's 46 per cent in a run-off a fortnight later. A spokesman for Hollande said he did not believe Melenchon would get more than 10 per cent in the first round.

He also rejected certain polls that suggest Le Pen could repeat the triumph in 2002 of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and win her way into the second round, knocking out Sarkozy.

"I thought it might be possible at one point, but not now," the Hollande spokesman said.

The five other candidates are expected to poll in single figures. Ifop's rolling opinion poll puts Europe Ecology candidate Eva Joly on 2.5 per cent, Philippe Poutou of the New Anticapitalist party on 0.5 per cent, Nathalie Arthaud from the Worker's Struggle party on 0.5 per cent, Jacques Cheminade of the Solidarity and Progress party on 0 per cent, and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan of Arise the Republic on 1 per cent.

Melenchon's supporters are simply hoping that their man stays on a roll.

On his blog, visited by 30,000 people every day, one post is entitled: "It's about to get bloody."

- Observer