“Third Man” Mélenchon can no longer be ignored

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the radical Left Front's presidential candidate, has gained four percentage points in two weeks in opinion polls, a result that would see him take the third spot in the first of the two round vote for France's head of state.

He would win 15 percent of the first round on April 22, the LH2/Yahoo poll suggested, overtaking far-right Marine Le Pen who was on 13.5 percent.

The same poll gave Socialist Francois Hollande victory in the first round with 28.5 percent of the vote, against 27.5 percent for incumbent right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy. For the May 6 second round vote, Hollande would garner 54 percent and Sarkozy 46 percent. Hollande has lost one point since March 18, while Sarkozy has gained one.

Mélenchon's success suggests his radical leftwing programme and moves to steer Hollande's agenda left are having an impact.

The Socialists have already responded to Mélenchon's rising star by proposing a 75 percent top income-tax rate. Last weekend Arnaud Montebourg, Hollande's "spécial représentative," said he believed it would be possible to 'negotiate with Jean-Luc Mélenchon' when it came to legislative elections in June. When pressed by journalists on Thursday, former Socialist labor minister Martine Aubrey said that yes, communists in a future Socialist-led government were a distinct possibility.

"The Socialists don't know what to do," said François Delapierre, head of Mélenchon's campaign. "Their strategy was 'let's ignore him' but they are now forced to change that."

Former socialist Mélenchon, who drew 120,000 people to a rally in Paris on March 18 and has attracted thousands to local events around the country since his campaign started, is planning to intensify mass public meetings with one a day planned until the vote. Up to 40,000 people were expected at a rally in Toulouse on Friday.

The Left Front (Front de Gauche) is an alliance of the Communist Party and Left Party, which in turn is formed of former Socialists, people who hadn't been members of a political party before and dissidents from the Green Party. They first stood in the 2009 European elections.

Their program calls for control over the banks, a completely new relationship based on "solidarity" between France and other European countries, "ecological planning" and dismantling NATO.

The Left Front calls for stronger workers' rights, new powers for workers "to pre-empt" or "requisition" plants faced with closure, a ban on lay-offs for companies that have paid dividends to shareholders and measures to make it unattractive to relocate industries to countries where the cost of labor is lower.

Fears that Mélenchon, a former teacher and government minister, may cut into the Socialist vote appear unfounded. Overall the Left vote has never been higher and Hollande is seen as comfortably defeating Sarkozy in the second round of the elections expected on April 5, when Mélenchon's supporters will rally against the detested incumbent.