French candidates focus on rallying core vote


NICOLAS SARKOZY proclaiming his attachment to family values and authority. François Hollande declaring the world of finance as his enemy. And Marine Le Pen raising objections to halal meat.

The pre-campaign rhetoric may have been about reaching beyond traditional supporter bases, but if the early days of campaigning in the French presidential election are anything to judge by, the leading candidates have their sights firmly focused on their own.

With two months to go before the first round of voting on April 22nd, and abstention expected to be high, each of the main parties will need to rally the core vote to ensure their candidate has a chance of making the second round run-off.

The latest opinion polls show President Sarkozy is trailing the socialist candidate, Hollande, with yesterday’s daily Ifop survey giving the socialist 29 per cent, Sarkozy 27 per cent and National Front leader Le Pen 17.5 per cent.

In a hypothetical play-off between Hollande and Sarkozy, Ifop said the socialist would win by 56 per cent to 44 per cent.

Pollsters are divided on whether Sarkozy has received a bounce on the back of his official declaration last week, but his stagnant ratings over the past year and fears of Le Pen’s rise have set the terms of his strategy.

Building his campaign around the axis “work, authority, responsibility”, Sarkozy used his first major speech at the weekend to advertise his conservative credentials.

He took a strong line against gay marriage and euthanasia, and advocated new immigration restrictions and a referendum to compel the jobless to take training offers.

The impact of the opinion polls can also be seen in Le Pen’s strategy. Having performed strongly since she succeeded her father, Jean-Marie, as party leader last year, Le Pen has recently seen her surge taper off and her chances of qualifying for a run-off fade.

Failing to make a breakthrough with a campaign that emphasised the party’s protectionist economic policies, she has in recent days returned to the front’s traditional issues: Islam and immigration.

On a visit to a food market yesterday, Sarkozy was forced to reject claims by Le Pen that households in Paris were all unwittingly eating halal meat.

Seizing on a recent documentary that claimed slaughterhouses around Paris had switched entirely to halal methods to cut costs, Le Pen had said she was “disgusted” that “all the abattoirs of the Paris region have succumbed to the rules of a minority”.

In response, Sarkozy insisted yesterday that only 2.5 per cent of the 200,000 tonnes of beef consumed each year in the Paris area was halal.

For Hollande, the need to shore up the left-wing vote – whose divisions cost his party colleague Lionel Jospin a place in the run-off in 2002 – is paramount.

His best-placed left-wing challenger is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who had 8.5 per cent in yesterday’s Ifop poll.

After Hollande struck a strong left-wing note at his first campaign rally, declaring “the world of finance” as his enemy, the number of Mélenchon supporters who said they would vote for Hollande in the second round rose from 76 to 87 per cent.

On this complex chessboard, Sarkozy’s task is the trickiest. While trying to wrest votes from the far right, he must also keep an eye on the centre, where he will need to perform strongly to win a run-off.

The centrist candidate, François Bayrou, had 11 per cent in yesterday’s poll, but a huge 46 per cent of his voters have not decided how they would choose between Sarkozy and Hollande.

One of the incumbent’s latest initiatives – a pledge to introduce a limited form of proportional representation for future parliamentary elections – was seen as a gesture towards Bayrou, whose small Mouvement Démocrate party fares badly under the first-past-the-post system.

Should he be knocked out in the first round, Bayrou’s advice to his voters could be vital to the outcome.

Past form is no guide to his intentions: Bayrou has served as minister in a right-wing government, but he supported the socialist Ségolène Royal in 2007.

“The man I feel closest to is Jacques Delors,” he said yesterday, referring to the socialist former European commissioner. But he was careful to avoid harsh criticism of either Sarkozy or Hollande.