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In France Melenchon, France's 'unbowed' hard-left candidate

Jean-Luc Melenchon, a fiery Communist-backed eurosceptic vowing to return "power to the people" if he becomes France's next president, says he has mellowed after years spent giving the establishment a tongue-lashing.

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French presidential election candidate for the far-left coalition La France Insoumise Jean-Luc Melenchon has surged in recent polls play

French presidential election candidate for the far-left coalition La France Insoumise Jean-Luc Melenchon has surged in recent polls

(AFP)

Jean-Luc Melenchon, a fiery Communist-backed eurosceptic vowing to return "power to the people" if he becomes France's next president, says he has mellowed after years spent giving the establishment a tongue-lashing.

"I'm less of a hothead," the bespectacled 65-year-old said in a recent interview. "I'm becoming a reassuring figure."

In an election marked by widespread disillusionment with the political class, the head of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) enjoyed a late surge ahead of Sunday's first round of the two-stage vote.

Observers say strong debate performances showcasing a more temperate but still quick-witted Melenchon helped propel him into serious contention for the presidency.

Melenchon "invented political stand-up. He's become a showman," said former Socialist Party colleague Julien Dray. "This style keeps him from being too harsh. He's in teaching mode, the old professor giving lessons about the world and how to change it."

The candidate showed the blend of calm and defiance on Friday by going ahead with a campaign event -- an "unbowed cocktail hour" -- while his rivals cancelled theirs in the wake of the jihadist shooting of a police officer on Paris's Champs Elysees.

The oldest of the main candidates has made the most intensive use of the internet, boasting more than a million followers on Twitter and his own YouTube channel -- a way to circumvent the traditional media, which he accuses of bias.

Rhetoric and social media savvy

And he has turned heads with simultaneous appearances at campaign rallies using holograms, a technological first for a French presidential campaign.

With the Socialist Party split between leftist and reformist camps under President Francois Hollande, its 49-year-old candidate Benoit Hamon is languishing in a distant fifth place in the polls.

For many, Melenchon, after emphatically refusing to ally himself with Hamon, has emerged as the main voice on the left.

Jean-Luc Melenchon delivers a speech during a public meeting at the Old Port of Marseille, southern France, on April 9, 2017 play

Jean-Luc Melenchon delivers a speech during a public meeting at the Old Port of Marseille, southern France, on April 9, 2017

(AFP)

Often appearing at rallies wearing a Chairman Mao-style jacket, Melenchon speaks without notes as he rails against the "neo-liberal" European Union and pushes his tax-and-spend agenda.

But while he shares far-right leader Marine Le Pen's animosity toward the EU -- they are both currently MEPs -- Melenchon is her polar opposite when it comes to immigration.

"Today as yesterday, I am delighted that France is a mix of races and all the children are our children," he has said.

An admirer of late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez as well as Bolivian leader Evo Morales, he advocates a policy of non-alignment and wants France to withdraw from NATO.

While his supporters see him as a defender of the people against moneyed interests, to his detractors Melenchon, who wants to legalise cannabis, is a dangerous populist firebrand -- Hollande called him a "peril" while the right-leaning Figaro daily called him the "French Chavez".

Born in Morocco, Melenchon, who studied philosophy, was a Trotskyist student activist before joining the Socialist party at age 25 and became the youngest member of the Senate in 1986.

'Our country needs another voice'

Later he served as vocational education minister under Socialist premier Lionel Jospin from 2000 to 2002.

Jean-Luc Melenchon delivers a speech during a public meeting at the Old Port of Marseille, southern France, on April 9, 2017 play

Jean-Luc Melenchon delivers a speech during a public meeting at the Old Port of Marseille, southern France, on April 9, 2017

(AFP)

But in 2008, Melenchon fell out with then party leader Hollande and quit the Socialists, saying "our country needs another voice on the left".

With his virulent attacks against bosses and austerity policies, he won 11 percent of the vote when he ran for president in 2012 as head of the Parti de Gauche (Left Party).

This time he has emerged as a hard-left alternative to Le Pen and the other "outsider", the pro-business Emmanuel Macron, vowing to scrap France's "monarchical presidency" and give far more power to parliament.

While anger management may have softened Melenchon's image, the candidate insists he still has fire in his belly.

"You can't propose what I am proposing with the look of a choirboy... Sometimes there's no choice, you have to kick the doors open," he said.

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