Hollande and Sarkozy court far right voters after National Front's success


FRANÇOIS HOLLANDE and Nicolas Sarkozy steered their campaigns on to far-right terrain yesterday as they fought for National Front votes that could decide who wins the French presidency next week.

Mr Sarkozy, fighting to recover after being beaten into second place in Sunday’s first round, said that no issues were taboo and focused almost exclusively on issues such as immigration, crime, Islam and unregulated trade.

His Socialist rival, Mr Hollande, said the 6.3 million voters who chose Marine Le Pen on Sunday had expressed “society’s anger” and vowed to defend them from “financial globalisation and a failing Europe”. A cartoon in Le Monde parodying Romeo and Juliet depicted Mr Hollande and Mr Sarkozy stabbing each other in the back while offering bouquets in French national colours and serenading Le Pen voters looking down from a balcony.

“Do you know these guys?” one hard-hatted Le Pen supporter in overalls asks. “Never seen them before,” his friend replies.

Mr Hollande said voters identified Mr Sarkozy with the EU’s free-market ideology and the austerity measures the bloc has imposed across the continent. He promised measures for growth to stem France’s rising unemployment, which stands at a 12-year high of almost 10 per cent. In a speech in the northern Aisne region, where Ms Le Pen polled strongly, he called the incumbent “the unemployment candidate” to cheers from supporters. “For all those who are suffering, workers, employees, retirees, all those who are worrying . . . I want to tell all of them that what I will decide will be fair and that they can have hope.”

At a rally in Longjumeau, in the Paris suburbs, Mr Sarkozy spoke of “protecting the French way of life”, reducing immigration by 50 per cent and encouraging hard work.

While describing himself as a secular republican, he invoked the heritage of the French monarchy and the Roman Catholic church in a play for nationalist votes. “The National Front’s vote must be understood,” he told supporters.

The president has also sharpened his rhetoric against the socialists. On the stump at Saint-Cyr in the Loire Valley, he used Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s downfall against his rival.

Ms Le Pen has said she will give her “opinion” on the second round at her party’s annual Joan of Arc rally on May 1st, but she is unlikely to endorse either candidate.

Polls show a majority of far-right supporters prefer Mr Sarkozy, but up to a quarter – mainly working-class voters who previously voted socialist or communist – could switch to Mr Hollande. An Ifop tracking poll last night showed Mr Hollande remained ahead of his opponent with 55 per cent support.


Tensions in Sarkozy’s party?

Hoping to win over a big share of the National Front’s support for the May 6th run-off, Nicolas Sarkozy has taken a tough line on issues such as national identity and immigration.

The first signs of strain over the strategy within Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party, quite a broad ideological church, were revealed yesterday when one of its senators, Chantal Jouanno, said adopting far-right ideas was wrong. The former minister also said she would vote Socialist over the National Front in next June’s parliamentary elections.

Her comments drew an angry response from prime minister François Fillon, who called them “stupid” and “counter-productive”.

Jouanno wasn’t the only high-profile Sarkozy ally to go off-message yesterday. In a radio interview, foreign minister Alain Juppé speculated on what would happen in the event of Sarkozy losing and pledged to do all he could to keep a defeated UMP intact. Sarkozy’s response? Juppé “would do better to concentrate on the second round”.

The final debate

Within a hour of projected results being announced last Sunday, Sarkozy challenged his opponent François Hollande to three televised debates. The incumbent’s camp believe the format would play to his strengths and highlight Hollande’s weaknesses. But the socialist replied that, as tradition dictated, there should only be one debate. He repeated this line yesterday when rejecting a joint proposal from four radio stations to hold a debate on the airwaves. Sarkozy accuses his rival of hiding from tough discussion. “If he is too busy, I propose we change the date. If he prefers the morning, afternoon, no problem. Evening? No problem. If Thursday is better than Wednesday, no problem . . . He will have to engage. Mr Hollande will have to take risks.” The debate will take place on May 2nd.

Trains or planes?

The Hollande campaign never misses an opportunity to tell voters how “normal” and low-key their man is. They believe this draws a flattering contrast with Sarkozy, whose flashiness and expensive tastes have damaged his popularity and helped the “president of the rich” label stick.

We already know that Hollande rides a scooter around Paris. Yesterday we learned that he would take the train as president.

“Yes, I’d take the train,” he said when asked by a reporter, explaining that this would help him remain close to the people and save money. As president, Sarkozy was often criticised for taking a private plane everywhere he went – even for short trips in France.

Sarkozy has taken the train once during the campaign, for the short hop from Paris to Lille. He boarded a second-class carriage in view of the cameras, then made his way to first class when the train left the station.

The youth vote

Surprise greeted a poll this month that showed Marine Le Pen was the most popular candidate among 18-24-year-olds. However, a CSA survey carried out after voting on Sunday found it was Hollande who emerged in first place among young people (28 per cent), ahead of Sarkozy (22 per cent) and Le Pen (18 per cent). In other age categories, Sarkozy did particularly well among over-65s (41 per cent), with Hollande on 30 per cent. Le Pen’s best score was in the 35-49-year-old bracket (24 points).

Berlusconi bounce?

European politicians don’t go chasing an endorsement from Silvio Berlusconi. It wasn’t quite an endorsement that Italy’s former prime minister gave Hollande yesterday, but he did remark that a win for the socialist could give “a new wind to Europe”. Berlusconi’s ex-finance minister Giulio Tremonti went further: “I know Sarkozy, he’s a friend, but in France I would vote for Hollande because I share his ideas.”

Stealing Le Pen’s clothes

National Front vice-president Louis Aliot is not impressed with Sarkozy’s efforts to lay claim to Marine Le Pen’s ideas. “We’re going to buy him a blonde wig – then he’ll have the whole outfit,” Aliot said.