PARIS — Tens of thousands marched in Paris on Sunday to support firebrand leftist presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who has shaken up France’s election campaign with a surprise jump in the polls.
Melenchon of the Left Front, who represents a coalition of leftist parties including the Communists, has emerged as a significant factor in the campaign just as Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande faces a resurgent threat from incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy.
His virulent attacks on the rich, France’s elite and austerity measures have struck a chord with many voters and polls this week showed him surpassing the symbolic 10 percent mark, up four points from the start of the year, with only five weeks to go before the April 22 first round of voting.
Waving a sea of red Left Front and Communist Party flags, tens of thousands of supporters marched through central Paris under cloudy skies in a symbolic rally to “retake the Bastille” — the square where the medieval fortress and prison was stormed during the iconic moment of the French Revolution.
Organisers said more than 100,000 people took part in the rally, held on the anniversary of the Paris Commune uprising of 1871 and which was to end with a speech by Melenchon at Place de la Bastille.
“Melenchon represents the only political force that truly represents the French people,” supporter Sylvianne Tardieu, a 50-year-old Communist from the central city of Clermont-Ferrand, said at the rally.
“He is fighting against the world of finance for the French people,” she said.
Organisers hailed the rally, where marchers carried placards reading “Take Power!” and “The citizens’ revolution is on the march”, as a major step forward in Melenchon’s campaign.
“This is a big success, it’s the biggest public gathering of the election campaign so far,” Melenchon advisor Eric Coquerel told BFM television.
“We can go much higher,” he said of Melenchon’s poll numbers. “Our campaign is gaining credibility… We are targeting the second round.”
The latest IFOP poll released Sunday showed Melenchon with 11 percent support in the first round.
It also showed right-wing Sarkozy, who this week for the first time moved ahead of Hollande in first-round intentions, with 27.5 percent of the vote compared to 27 percent for his Socialist rival.
Hollande, the longstanding poll-leader, was still forecast to comfortably win the May 6 second round with 54 percent to 46 percent for Sarkozy.
Sensing the threat on his left flank, Hollande has suggested to left-wing voters that a vote for Melenchon could hand victory to the right.
“Every vote is useful,” Hollande said when asked about Melenchon’s surge this week. “I do not want to question this or that choice by voters, but everyone must understand what is at stake.”
But Melenchon’s supporters rejected the idea that voting for the candidate could lead to a victory for Sarkozy.
“We are pushing ideas for change,” Sebastien Goyard, a 27-year-old social security worker from Paris, said during the march.
“If we don’t vote with our principles in the first round, change is not possible,” he said.
Melenchon, a 60-year-old former Socialist minister, split with the party in 2008 to found his own party and was elected to the European Parliament in 2009.