By Clare Byrne -
TAKING stock of his defeat in the first round of France’s presidential election on Sunday, Nicolas Sarkozy set out his strategy for winning the final battle against Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande on May 6.
Addressing supporters in Paris, Sarkozy, who scored 25.5-27 per cent compared with 28.4-29.3 per cent for Hollande according to exit polls, said he understood “the anguish, the suffering” of the French.
What the election had shown, he said, was that the main concern of the French was how to preserve their lifestyle, which he would do by combating illegal immigration, enhancing the status of work and defending French identity.
“I call on all those who love their homeland to join me,” he said, returning to his early themes of “truth” and “courage.” It was a speech aimed at casting as wide a net as possible for transfer votes in the second round, from the centre all the way through to the far right.
Although she was knocked out at the first round, far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen scored a historic result of between 18.2 per cent and 20 per cent, the highest-ever first-round result by the rabid anti-immigrant party.
Sarkozy hopes to mop up all her voters and a chunk of centrist candidate Francois Bayrou’s votes (around 9 per cent) to pull off a victory in the second round.
“It’s a new campaign that’s beginning,” an upbeat government spokeswoman Valerie Pecresse told BFM TV.
Sarkozy himself said he was “confident.” And yet the odds were stacked against the deeply unpopular incumbent.
Hollande not only has the psychological upper hand going into the second round, he also has a trump card in the person of maverick Left Front leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, who scored between 10.5 per cent and 13 per cent.
Melenchon missed his goal of outvoting his nemesis Le Pen, but he was the real sensation of the campaign. The former Socialist senator mobilised jaded left-wing voters, who turned out in their tens of thousands to rallies, where he held them in thrall with talk of people power.
Melenchon has promised to throw that support behind Hollande to bar a Sarkozy second term. Sarkozy, by contrast, has no joker.
Marine Le Pen has refused to endorse him. “My voters will do what they like,” said Le Pen, who unveiled her ambition on Sunday of uniting “patriots from both the right and the left” in a new patriotic-sovereignty movement.
Plus, although Sarkozy and Le Pen have both campaigned on illegal immigration and security, the two are poles apart on the economy. Le Pen has called for France to withdraw from the euro, which Sarkozy, together with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has battled to keep afloat.
A poll published by Le Monde daily on Sunday evening showed 48 per cent of Le Pen voters would support Sarkozy in a run-off, and that 31 per cent would support Hollande.
Sarkozy’s share could grow if he manages to convince his critics that he is a bulwark against a “red menace” from a Hollande-Melenchon tandem.
Hollande has ruled out making any policy quid pro quos to Melenchon, and Melenchon himself has said the Left Front is “not for sale,” but Sarkozy is already portraying Hollande as “a hostage” of the radical left.
Centrist voters, particularly, might be alarmed about the Melenchon effect.
Bayrou has not yet said, who, if anyone, he would support in a second round but has been more critical of Hollande’s tax-and-spend programme, which he says is “untenable.”
At issue for Hollande is reclaiming the Elysee Palace 17 years after the last Socialist president Francois Mitterrand handed the keys to centre-right president Jacques Chirac.
On Sunday he used a rugby metaphor to describe the task at hand. His goal, he said, was “to transform the try for change.”