Sarkozy closes gap on leading Socialist Party rival

Sat, Mar 17, 2012, 00:00

FRENCH PRESIDENT Nicolas Sarkozy proclaimed himself the candidate of the nation’s “silent majority” as his camp celebrated opinion polls which confirmed he was cutting the lead of presidential frontrunner François Hollande.

Mr Hollande, the Socialist Party’s candidate, has enjoyed a strong lead in polls since last year, but in the past week a number of surveys showed that Mr Sarkozy has drawn level or overtaken him on first-round voting intentions.

An OpinionWay poll to be published in Le Figaro today shows both men on 27.5 per cent, with Mr Hollande’s support having dropped by 1.5 points and Mr Sarkozy gaining by the same amount. National Front leader Marine Le Pen is in third place on 16 per cent.

All polls still give the socialist the lead in a run-off against Mr Sarkozy, but the broad trend over the past week has shown that gap is narrowing. According to Le Figaro’s figures, Mr Hollande is on 55 per cent (-1) against Mr Sarkozy on 45 per cent (+1).

At a rally yesterday in Meaux, near Paris, Mr Sarkozy struck a confident note and predicted for the first time on the campaign trail that he would win. Referring to those who had written him off, the president said his victory would represent a triumph for the “silent majority” over “diktats” and “received wisdom”.

“If the French people say, ‘that’s enough’, it is we who will freely choose the next president of the republic, my dear friends, yes, we will win,” he said to cheers.

The Sarkozy camp is relishing the past week’s poll results, which followed a week of reversals that had left a creeping sense of defeatism on the right. “What has changed is not that I’m saying I’ll win,” he told journalists, “but that you are no longer laughing at me”.

All polls indicate Mr Sarkozy has considerable ground to make up if he is to catch Mr Hollande in a run-off. A tightening field will turn the spotlight on to François Bayrou, the centrist candidate who has about 12 per cent support and whose endorsement could be crucial in the second round.

Hoping to regain the momentum, Mr Hollande made a three-hour appearance on France 2’s flagship current affairs programme on Thursday night, a move Libération described as “an attempt to give his campaign a second wind”. Conscious of the steady rise in recent polls of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a left-wing candidate who commands 10 per cent support, Mr Hollande stressed his plans to raise taxes on the rich and held firm on his pledge to introduce a 75 per cent rate on incomes above €1 million.

“I have not strayed from the line I set since the beginning: coherence, consistency and confidence,” said Mr Hollande, denouncing his opponents for running an “excessive” and “vulgar” campaign.

The incumbent received a small boost with the news that his long-time rival Dominique de Villepin was struggling to garner the 500 mayors’ signatures he needed to stand in the election. Mr de Villepin, a former prime minister, had barely 1 per cent support but his exit would mean fewer divisions on the right.