PARIS (Reuters) - Jean-Luc Melenchon’s election campaign posters invite French voters to “Take power!”
Branding himself “the sound and the fury” after the William Faulkner novel of the same name, the hard-left insurgent has shaken up a lacklustre presidential race with fiery oratory and revolutionary calls to arms.
With a platform that features boosting the minimum wage, cutting the retirement age, confiscating income above 350,000 euros a year and outlawing layoffs by profitable companies, he has drawn tens of thousands of leftists and Communists to outdoor rallies around the country.
Now the 60-year-old former teacher is looking to extend his movement’s influence on a future left-wing government if, as polls suggest, Socialist candidate Francois Hollande defeats conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy in a May 6 runoff.
A child of the 1968 student-worker uprising, Melenchon makes no apologies for his straight talk and independent spirit. He was expelled by the Trotskyists and quit the Socialists before forming his own radical movement, the Left Party.
“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.
His sharp temper and prickly character have earned him a reputation for angry outbursts, particularly at journalists. He was a journalist himself early in his political career.
The radical candidate caused a media stir by calling a BBC interviewer a “dickhead”. A video circulating on the Internet shows him railing at another young reporter who asked about prostitution, calling him a hypocrite and “bird brain”.
Melenchon’s wit and call for a citizen’s revolution against the tyranny of finance have struck a chord with voters, propelling him up opinion polls from his previous status as an outsider and making him a scarecrow to the right.
“They’re afraid of the colour red,” he told supporters at an outdoor rally in the south-eastern bull-fighting region of Bearn. “Let’s leave that fear to the beasts with horns.”
One poll by the CSA institute last week put him in third place for the April 22 first round with 17 percent of the vote, ahead of his far-right arch rival for the workers’ vote, Marine Le Pen. But most show him trailing her with about 14 percent.
Part of Melenchon’s attraction lies in his mastery of public oratory — the emphatic finger-jabbing, tempered with literary and historical references, and capped with a razor-sharp wit.
There’s also his passionate call for a fairer society and crusade against the intellectual snobbery of the left, all of which have found support with a cynical electorate, alienated by scandals and disillusioned by four years of economic crisis.
Melenchon was born on August 19, 1951 in Tangier in Morocco, to “pied noir” French parents, both of Spanish descent.
He moved to France in 1962 and had his first brush with politics at an early age, leading his fellow high-school pupils in the Jura mountains in the 1968 student revolt.
While studying philosophy at university, he joined the Internationalist Communist Organisation, a Trotskyist group, adopting the pseudonym Sancerre. He was expelled in 1976, and went on to join the Socialist Party in 1977, later forming his own radical factions within the party, the New Socialist School and Socialist Left.
Melenchon served as Minister for Vocational Training under Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin from 2000 to 2002, but was devastated when the Socialists lost the 2002 presidential eleciton, knocked out in the first round by Jean-Marie Le Pen.
He left the party in 2008, accusing it of moving too far towards the centre, and set up the Left Party, which joined with the Communist Party and other radicals to form the Left Front.
Reporting by Vicky Buffery; Editing by Paul Taylor