French Front de Gauche candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, Jean-Luc Melenchon (center), takes part in a march to the Bastille prior to giving a campaign speech on March 18, 2012 in Paris. (KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

More than 30,000 cheering supporters gathered at the Bastille, the icon of the French Revolution, to cheer Jean-Luc Melenchon as he shouted out his promises of a new dawn. He will lead them into another insurrection, he pledged, waving his arms and laughing in delight, to upend the political system, to rewrite the bourgeois constitution, to bridle the gnomes of predatory capitalism.

“This is the point of departure for all our revolutions,” he said in the shadow of the celebrated tower. What happened in 1789, he declared to joyful responses from the crowd, can happen again in 2012, if only French voters will enroll in the radical left cause and cast their ballots for his Leftist Front coalition.

Setting the tone even more clearly, Melenchon’s speech on a dreary afternoon ended with a fist-waving rendition of the “Internationale,” the 19th-century hymn of the revolutionary worker movement. Only afterward did the crowd move on to the “Marseillaise,” the French national anthem.

The Melenchon candidacy in France’s two-round presidential election, scheduled April 23 and May 6, started last fall as a fringe movement, reflecting a long-standing French tradition of airy revolutionary causes that do not survive the first round of voting. But to the surprise of many, the Leftist Front has suddenly started scoring high in opinion polls, moving from 8 percent to 12 percent to 14 percent — transforming Melenchon’s campaign from folklore to realpolitik.

The Leftist Front, which is comprised of the Communist Party and several small groups to left of the left, has captured more support than expected, commentators explained, mainly because of Melenchon’s skills as an orator and his ability to capitalize on disappointment with the staid social democracy of the Socialist presidential candidate, Francois Hollande, the main adversary of conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Hollande, a paragon of compromise often criticized as the leader of France’s “soft left,” has brought little revolutionary fervor to his campaign, and his speeches often are less than rousing. Instead, with the profile of an overeducated bureaucrat, he has warned French voters that the country is so strapped by the European debt crisis and unemployment that austerity and tax hikes would be inevitable if he became president.

Filling a void

Melenchon, 60, a former Socialist, has filled the void to Hollande’s left, promising to tax the rich at 100 percent, pull out of Europe’s market-oriented economic agreements and protect the country from the evils of globalization, such as factory closures and cheap products from China. That, the commentators explained, is music to the ears of Communist Party faithful and millions of left-wing French professionals who still think in terms defined during the political and social upheaval of 1968.

“He returns to the foundations of political discourse: a battle of ideas, a place of genuine clashes,” said Damon Mayaffre of the National Center for Scientific Research in the Figaro newspaper. In doing so, Mayaffre said, Melenchon “gives value to those who listen to him,” mainly people who have been left behind by contemporary political debate that embraces the market economy as a given and talks in terms of evolution rather than revolution.

“Melenchon brings us a little hope, a little bit of a dream,” said Brigitte Loir, 62, a retired secretary who paints and acts in an amateur theater group and who stopped by the Bastille rally to take in the atmosphere.

Loir and others at the gathering acknowledged that there is little chance Melenchon could be elected or that he could carry out his promises if he reached the presidency. But it felt good, they said, to hear someone voice their resentment against France’s leaders and challenge the consensus that nothing can be done to change the economic system.

Communist decline

But in down-to-earth calculations, the reach for utopia could eat into Hollande’s chances for an overwhelmingly strong showing in the first round of voting. Both he and Sarkozy want to score well in that round to give an impression of unbeatable momentum for the second round two weeks later.

This is particularly true after Mohammed Merah, the Frenchman of Algerian origin who espoused the al-Qaeda cause and gunned down seven people in southwestern France before being fatally shot Thursday by an anti-terrorism squad that rushed his Toulouse apartment.

Sarkozy was in the spotlight as a decisive leader for nearly a week during the manhunt for Merah, leaving Hollande on the sidelines more than ever. That played into what commentators have identified as one of Hollande’s main weaknesses — that he does not come off as presidential.

Many of Melenchon’s supporters come from the French Communist Party. Formerly a force to be reckoned with — it scored 15 percent in the first round in 1981 — the party has declined steadily as a national organization, although it retains a good number of city halls around the country.

The Communist Party got 3.7 percent of the vote in 2002’s first round and 1.9 percent in 2007, the last presidential election. The party leadership decided not to field a candidate this time around and threw its support to Melenchon.

A study by researchers at the Political Science Institute of Paris showed, however, that only 10 percent of Melenchon’s support comes from classic communist factory workers, with more than 20 percent coming from mid-level professions and office workers. Nearly 25 percent have college degrees, the surveyors found.