France's Melenchon sails against the tide

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French presidential election candidate for the far-left coalition La France insoumise Jean-Luc Melenchon (L), stands aboard an "unbowed" barge on the Canal Saint-Martin on April 17, 2017 in Paris

As Jean-Luc Melenchon, the radical leftwinger shaking up France's presidential race, cruised into eastern Paris on a barge on Monday a chant went up from supporters on the quayside: "Resistance! Resistance!"

Under ominous skies, hundreds of people flocked to the banks of the Canal Saint Martin to show their support for the firebrand vowing to take on the "oligarchy" and the "ultra-liberal" European Union.

Packed onto footbridges over the canal or lining the bank five and six-deep they waited patiently for the barge to wend its way slowly through a lock.

As the charismatic leader of La France Insoumise (Unbowed France) finally came into view, a brass band on deck struck up the 1960s hit "Can't Take My Eyes off You".

The 65-year-old political veteran has surged from behind in the final stages of the campaign to become a serious contender for one of the two top spots in the first round of voting on Sunday.

"If Melenchon gets through to the second round, I'll break out the champagne!" said Yves Jacot, an 80-year-old retired labourer, leaning on a blue walking stick.

Polls show Melenchon running just a few points behind the frontrunners, centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, vying for third with scandal-hit conservative Francois Fillon on around 19-20 percent each.

The two top vote-getters will go through to a runoff on May 7.

But Melenchon, a former minister who quit the ruling Socialists in 2008, knows it will not be all plain sailing to pick up the extra points he needs to make the final.

During the last election in 2012 he was also tipped as the "third man" but hemorrhaged support in the final stages to finish fourth, behind Le Pen.

This time he is convinced that he will make it past the first round, buoyed by fury with the mainstream parties and with the EU that he has spent a decade heckling.

"Here you are on an Easter Monday listening to a guy on a boat. There's something in the air!," the self-styled revolutionary declared.

An acclaimed orator, who sprinkles his tirades against the liberal establishment with odes to the arts and philosophy, the razor-tongued Melenchon draws rapturous crowds wherever he goes.

An innovative campaigner he has also created a buzz by appearing at rallies as a hologram.

But he has come under criticism over his threat to sharply increase public spending and pull France out of key EU treaties if Brussels does not reform.

On Monday, Melenchon used mockery to rebuff his critics from the deck of his barge, dressed casually in jeans and a black jacket.

"I am very dangerous", he growled in heavily accented English by way of response to a recent Financial Times article reporting that he spooks investors.

"They make up stuff every day. All their systems are built on fear," he accused.

"Keep the fire of rebellion burning inside you!"

- 'Drugs or Uber driver ' -

Melenchon's tour began under blue skies in the gritty northeastern suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis.

Addressing around 150 supporters in the neighbourhood of Pantin, he lashed out at Macron, who once argued that being an Uber driver working up to 70 hours a week -- one of the few jobs readily available to low-skilled youths -- was preferable to being jobless.

"We're not in a zoo here. It's not true that the only choice is to deal drugs or become Uber drivers!" he thundered.

Nacer Ghouma, a telecommunications expert, said he used to vote for centrists but was tacking to the left because he found 39-year-old Macron "insincere".

"Jean-Luc Melenchon stands out from the field. He is a man of the people," said the bespectacled 44-year-old, who had togged himself and his two sons out in the blue of France's football team for the occasion.

Annick Tamet, a 66-year-old Melenchon campaigner who has spent weeks going door-to-door in the area's high-rises, said the reaction had been "incredible" but expressed fears he could be stung by low turnout.

Taking his leave the man bidding to become France's captain shouted: "Come on, people, be strong!"