Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the surprise left-wing challenger in France's divisive forthcoming presidential election, has sought to reassure voters that a victory by him would not be as radical as some may think. Speaking on Wednesday night at a rally in Lille, Mélenchon is reported to have told supporters there would be no "Red Army tanks" in Paris if he won.

According to the Telegraph, Mélenchon was speaking to a crowd of around 12,000 people in the left-leaning northern city. Having previously fought in the 2012 election, where he won just 11% of the vote, the man often referred to as a follower of Chinese dictator Chairman Mao, was keen to rubbish warnings against voting for him.

Mélenchon is reported by The Telegraph to have told the crowds: "They announce that my winning the election would bring nuclear winter, a plague of frogs, Red Army tanks and the landing of the Venezuelans."

He added: "They are taking you for imbeciles."

On Thursday François Hollande became one of those to speak out against Mélenchon, whose policies include lowering the retirement age to 60 and a 32-hour working week. Hollande is reported to have spoken of the "peril" represented by Mélenchon.

In an election which has been seen very much as a two-horse race between far-right candidate Front National's Marine Le Pen and independent centrist Emannuel Macron, Moroccan-born Mélenchon has seen a surge in popularity in the last month. At 18.5% in a poll this week by Ifop-Fiducial, Mélenchon scored 18.5% of the vote, putting him just behind François Filon on 19% while the two front runners were on 24% and 23% respectively.

Though Mélenchon's higher rating in the polls has sustained in the last couple of weeks, he polled highest towards the end of March on 19.5%, 4% higher than Filon at the time. Since December, he polled lowest at the beginning of March on 9% showing the outcome of the election is still far from a forgone conclusion.

Jean-Luc Melenchon
Jean-Luc Melenchon, candidate of the far left coalition 'La France insoumise' for the 2017 French presidential elections, gives a speech during a public meeting in a street in front of the municipal theatre in Tourcoing, northern France Francois Lo Presti/AFP