1 May 2012

Mayday for Sarkozy in battle for far-right vote

The head of the French National Front urges her supporters to snub Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential elections – as both leaders address rival May Day rallies in Paris.

She is not even in the presidential run-off, but the far-right leader Marine Le Pen is wielding some hefty political clout, after winning a record 17.9 per cent in the election’s first round. Today she told her supporters to abstain in the second round, despite claims that Nicolas Sarkozy has been resorting to desperate measures in a bid to win over her 6.5 million strong vote.

At a rally in Paris to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the birth of Joan of Arc, Mrs Le Pen declared she could neither support Mr Sarkozy, nor his socialist rival Francois Hollande, declaring she would “vote blank” in Sunday’s poll. And she told the crowd that her surge in political support had changed everything. “We have become the centre of gravity for French politics”, she claimed.

Across town, Mr Sarkozy was holding his own May Day event at the Trocadero: an event which in itself has fuelled allegations that the UMP leader is so worried by his flagging poll performance that he has even been echoing the rhetoric of the wartime collaborationist Marshal Petain. Tuesday’s rally was billed as a celebration of “real work”, honouring those who “get up early, and work hard to earn less than those who do not work”.

We have become the centre of gravity in French politics. Marine Le Pen, Front National

This, say critics, is not only a bid to split the labour movement, which has traditionally marked May Day with trade union led gatherings. They point out that Petain was the first to create his own alternative Labour day, praising “work, family and homeland”. Francois Chereque, head of the CFDT union, told Liberation: “Every time in history that this holiday has been used politically, it was part of an anti-democratic drift.”

Sarkozy is fighting what looks like a losing battle to keep his place in the Elysee Palace. Polls put his socialist rival Francois Hollande between four and eight points ahead, a comfortable lead; but it could all hinge on the second preference votes of those who did not make it through to the runoff. Hollande is widely expected to mop up most of those who backed the radical leftist Jean Luc Melenchon. The Front National support, however, is far harder to predict.

Split support

Polls suggest that Sarkozy could take around half of those six and a half million votes, with the rest either abstaining, or plumping for Hollande. Last week, Marine Le Pen poured scorn on his efforts to win over her supporters. “We were xenophobes, anti-Semites, racists: national preference was a terrible thing…and all of a sudden, there is no more of that.”

The beleagured president has ruled out any explicit collaboration with the Front National, declaring that they could not expect to have any ministers in his government. But he called Le Pen’s support a “vote of suffering and despair”, and insisted: “I have to listen to their message and take them into account, and not think it’s time to hold my nose.”

But many within his own UMP believe Sarkozy has gone much further than simply refusing to hold his nose. Recent speeches have stirred up fears about Hollande’s plan to give voting rights to foreigners; proposed tough new immigration rules which would turn away almost half of those trying to enter France; vowed to “defend the French way of life”, accused Hollande of being backed by Islamists, and declared the Front National was “compatible with the Republic”.

According to French media reports, there’s a growing unease inside Sarkozy’s own UMP party about his shift to the right, with former prime ministers Jean Pierre Raffarin and Alain Juppe said to be concerned. Another former centre right prime minister, Domenique de Villepin, who has been a fierce rival of Sarkozy, has condemned what he termed “a shameless seduction of extremist votes.”

Crossing the line?

The newspaper Le Monde has accused Sarkozy of crossing the line: “(He has) adopted the language, the rhetoric and the ideas – or rather the obsessions – of Mrs Le Pen”, it proclaimed. But the UMP itself is sharply divided: polls suggest as much as 64 per cent of its supporters would favour a deal with the far right in order to get back into power.

The man who many believe is behind Sarkozy’s tactical shift is the former far-right journalist Patrick Buisson, now head of the polling firm Publifact. The 63-year-old strategist was credited with helping Sarkozy sweep to victory in 2007, and has become his key adviser and confidant. He is said to have inspired the new tough line on immigration controls, as well as the attempt to give Sarkozy a new populist message, as “the people’s candidate”.

But the numbers, so far, do not appear to be with him. Much of Mrs Le Pen’s support has been fuelled by the intense anger over Sarkozy’s austerity measures, with many working class voters blaming his government for presiding over rampant unemployment and soaring living costs. So far, it seems, his attempts to win them back by praising “real workers” has not won him much respect.