With less than a fortnight to go before the second round of France's presidential election, President Nicolas Sarkozy has embarked on a high-stakes gamble to seduce voters who supported far-right National Front (FN) candidate Marine Le Pen in Sunday’s first round.
Sarkozy needs some 80 per cent of the FN’s 6.4 million voters to back him in the second round on May 6. But polls show he only has 60 per cent. The next two weeks will see a concerted drive to win the others over.
Courting the FN is a risky operation for the incumbent president and his centre-right UMP party.
Sarkozy says no deal with National Front
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Wednesday that he would not do a deal with the far-right, but that those who voted for the National Front party should not be demonised.
There will "not be an accord with the National Front (and) no ministers" from the extreme-right party, said Sarkozy. Both he and his Socialist challenger are trying to woo the over six million voters who picked the far right in the first round of France's presidential election.
Not only does Sarkozy risk alienating potential centrist supporters of Francois Bayrou (who got 9.3 per cent in Sunday’s vote), but there is also a danger that he will further legitimise the French far right by delving deeper into populist themes like immigration and national identity.
Sarkozy’s post-election flirtation with FN voters – whose candidate Marine Le Pen got a record-breaking 17.9 per cent of votes on Sunday – began in earnest on Monday in a speech at Saint-Cyr-Sur-Loire near Tours, southwest of Paris.
High on the list were protecting the French national identity, tightening national borders, and supporting workers and young people affected by the economic crisis – all themes dear to the National Front.
Sarkozy even named the FN and said that he respected the party’s voters: “Some people [on the left] hold their noses. I want to say that we have heard [the FN voters] and know how to respond with precise commitments.”
Former UMP spokesman Dominique Paillé, now a senior advisor to centrist Jean-Louis Borloo (head of the Parti Radical, in coalition with the UMP), told FRANCE 24 on Tuesday that Sarkozy was making a mistake by playing hard into FN territory.
“The themes he should be discussing to win [far-right voters] are social mobility, employment and the cost of living,” he said. “These are the only areas where he has genuine credibility.”
Paillé warned the incumbent that he should refrain from adopting the FN’s rhetoric on Europe and immigration. “All that this will do is stigmatise sectors of French society, create divisions and pit people against each other,” he said.
“Sarkozy may be a candidate, but he is still president. A president must bring people together, not set them apart. For a president to divide his people through populism is hateful. It is a big mistake and it will cost him many centrist voters.”
Paillé’s view is shared by Jean-Yves Camus, one of France’s leading experts on the far right and a senior researcher at the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Relations.
“Sarkozy’s campaign so far has already been extremely right-wing,” he said. “It’s hard to see how it could lean any further to the right without seriously upsetting his core voters.”
A long-term boost to the FN?
But the danger goes beyond what Sarkozy is prepared to risk in the short term in his desperate bid for the far-right vote.
Camus said the president was “likely to go deeper into issues of national identity and immigration to attract FN voters” in the run-up to the May 6 vote, regardless of the effect such a strategy may have on the centrist vote.
“However, if Sarkozy gets back into power, he will certainly not crack down hard on immigration because he knows it is bad politics. This will cause more frustration and certainly strengthen the FN in the long term.”
In his 2007 presidential campaign, Sarkozy was able to eclipse the FN by promising to be tough on immigration and crime. But he was then unable to fulfill those promises, feeding far-right frustration with his government and strengthening Marine Le Pen’s position.
Paillé agreed that by addressing FN issues Sarkozy was once again gifting credibility to the far right, a dangerous tactic at a time when Marine Le Pen is trying to destroy the UMP and make her party the de facto conservative voice of opposition.
“Sarkozy’s term in office and the discourse of his campaign has allowed Le Pen and her party to grow in stature,” Paillé said. “That he is continuing to do so shows that he has his back to the wall.”
Hollande more the ‘statesman’
Meanwhile, Socialist Candidate Francois Hollande is also courting elements of the FN vote, but “doing it in a more measured way”, according to Camus.
The winner of Sunday’s first round has appealed only to those voters with socialist sympathies while studiously avoiding far-right themes that are alien to his party’s ideology.
Front cover of Libération daily on Tuesday, April 24
“Hollande sees that there are elements among those who voted for Le Pen who are potential Socialist voters,” he said. “But he is going about it quietly and calmly, and in terms of policy he has stuck to his guns.
“The French expect their presidents to rise above the political fray. Unlike Sarkozy, Hollande is behaving much more like a statesman.”