French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his aides on Wednesday accused the left-wing press of “intellectual terrorism” for comparing the incumbent leader’s flirting with extreme right voters with wartime collaboration with the Nazis.
Leading left-wing daily Libération had published a sombre and funereal black and white photograph of the president on its front page. At the bottom of the page was a quote of Sarkozy saying that far-right National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen was “compatible with the Republic”.
In an editorial, the newspaper accused the president of “Pétaniste” zeal for using the May 1 International Workers' Day celebration to hold a rally in defence of “real work”. The reference was to wartime collaborationist leader of Vichy France Marshall Philippe Pétain, who in 1941 declared May 1 a “national celebration of work and harmony”.
Communist-linked daily L’Humanité was even more explicit, publishing pictures of Sarkozy and Pétain side by side on the front page.
L’Humanité accused Sarkozy of attempting a “takeover bid” of May 1, which is traditionally a left-wing celebration, as part of his campaign to woo the 6.4 million French voters who cast their ballot for Le Pen in the election's first round on Sunday.
Sarkozy desperately needs those voters. In the first round, the incumbent came second with 27.8 percent of the vote against Socialist candidate Francois Hollande’s 28.6 percent.
Hollande is tipped to win the second round by almost ten points, unless Sarkozy can convince the 18 percent who supported anti-immigration and anti-Europe Le Pen to vote for him and not stay away from the polls, as many are expected to do.
On Wednesday, Finance Minister Francois Baroin accused Libération and L’Humanité of “intellectual terrorism” for their attacks on the president.
“The Libération front page is a scandal,” he told Europe 1 radio. “And L’Humanité is completely unacceptable. Putting Sarkozy next to Pétain is scandalous.
“We do not accept this intellectual terrorism. We fought the National Front. We have not formed an alliance with the National Front. We never have and we never will.”
Although Sarkozy confirmed that there would be no official alliance, the tone of his speech on Tuesday made clear that he was launching a gloves-off offensive to bring France’s National Front supporters onside.
He told supporters in Longjumeau, a suburb in the south of Paris, that voters who had turned to Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration party had done so legitimately and that the FN was “compatible with the Republic”.
He also said that nationhood, immigration and border security, all subjects close to the FN’s heart, “had to be talked about” and that he would tackle them head on “so that [FN voters] understand clearly that we have heard their message”.
‘The honour of the country’
For Libération and L’Humanité, Sarkozy’s lurch to the right breaks a long tradition of refusal by the political mainstream to pander to or legitimise the policies of the far right.
Libération deputy editor Sylvain Bourmeau told FRANCE 24 on Wednesday that Sarkozy’s speech in Longjummeau was “a sad and shameful day for France”.
He added that the funereal black and white front page reflected “the weird echo that reminds us of the worst chapter in French history.
“Yesterday was a day that will go down in history, the day that the country’s [mainstream] right wing decided to end what used to be a clear separation with the far right,” he said.
“If Sarkozy loses, what will remain of the right wing? Will they be working together with the extreme right?”
Bourmeau went on to accuse Baroin of using a typical far-right strategy in “criticising the media elite”, and said that using these tactics was a sign of “weakness and anxiety” on the part of Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party.
For Libération, he added, the significance of Sarkozy’s flirtation with the National Front went far beyond what was at stake for Sarkozy in the short term.
“This is not just about the second round,” he said. “This is about the honour of the country. It is a question of principle and it is much more important than the election.”