French presidential battle lines drawn on austerity

PARIS Fri Mar 16, 2012 5:20pm EDT

1 of 11. Nicolas Sarkozy, France's President and UMP party candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, delivers a speech at a political rally in Meaux, East of Paris, March 16, 2012. Campaign slogan reads, 'A Strong France'.

Credit: Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

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PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist rival drew clear battle lines over austerity and Europe with polls showing the gap between them narrowing as the deadline closed on Friday for candidates to register for April's first round vote.

Hollande, whose wide poll lead over conservative Sarkozy has shrunk in the last week, raised the diplomatic stakes after German and Spanish opposition leaders publicly supported his demand for the renegotiation of a German-inspired European treaty enforcing strict budget discipline.

"Germany should not decide the direction of Europe alone," the Socialist told France-2 television in an interview late on Thursday. "We have to put growth back into Europe and we should adapt our deficit-reduction targets accordingly."

Sarkozy has insisted France cannot reopen a treaty that has been signed by the leaders of 25 countries, but Hollande said he intended to "change the direction of the continent" by adding pro-growth amendments to the treaty.

German Social Democratic party leader Sigmar Gabriel and Spanish Socialist chief Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba have endorsed Hollande's position, but Sarkozy's supporters accused him of pandering to voters by abandoning France's fiscal responsibility.

Invoking the famous "J'accuse" cry of 19th century author Emile Zola, Prime Minister Francois Fillon said in the daily Le Figaro: "I accuse the Socialist candidate of having deliberately chosen to give up on lowering the deficit. I accuse him of not wanting to lower state spending for fear of upsetting people.

"I accuse him of having given up respecting France's European commitments," Fillon write, adding that any backsliding could reignite the euro zone's debt crisis.

Hollande insists he will stick to the current government's promises to reduce the deficit to 3 percent of gross domestic product in 2013 but will take a year longer than Sarkozy has pledged to achieve a balanced budget, aiming for 2017.

The Institut Montaigne public policy think-tank said in an audit that Hollande had overestimated future revenues by 15 percent. Sarkozy has not yet published a full program so his figures cannot be audited, it said.

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Graphic: French election polls r.reuters.com/was36s

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Sarkozy received a small boost on Friday when his bitter rival, former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, failed to submit the 500 signatures from elected officials required to register by a 6 p.m. (1700 GMT) deadline.

Villepin had barely 1 percent support in opinion polls and refused to endorse any other contender, but his exit will lessen division in the mainstream right.

Because of a two-round voting system, in which the top two candidates meet in a runoff on May 6, both Sarkozy and Hollande first have to knock more radical contestants on the right and left out of the race.

Sarkozy has sought to win back voters from far-right anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen by threatening to pull out of Europe's open-border zone unless external border controls are toughened, and to impose unilateral trade barriers unless the EU imposes tougher reciprocity rules in public procurement.

A poll by Opinionway on Friday for Le Figaro newspaper confirmed Sarkozy's recovery in fortunes, showing him drawing level with Hollande for the April 22 first round. Each candidate had the support of 27.5 percent of voters, according to the poll, though Hollande retained a strong lead in the second round.

Le Pen was third with 16 percent of the first round vote, the poll said.

By shifting to the right, Sarkozy risks alienating voters backing centrist candidate Francois Bayrou, who secured 13 percent in the Opinionway poll.

Sarkozy's mercurial temper got the better of him when he called a reporter a "couillon" (prick) for asking him about the use of tear gas against protesting steelworkers near his campaign headquarters on Thursday. He later apologized.

Hollande, for his part, has tried to stem rising support for hard left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon - hovering around 10 percent - by proposing a 75 percent top income tax rate on earnings over 1 million euros a year, and by demanding a renegotiation of the fiscal pact.

Electoral authorities are due to publish a final list of candidates on Monday. Villepin's fall means there are likely to be around 10 candidates, including two Trotskyists, a Green, an anti-euro sovereignist, and maverick Jacques Cheminade, an associate of U.S. conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche.

The official campaign begins next Tuesday, with candidates' television time rationed to strict equality.

Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, spokeswoman for Sarkozy's campaign, accused Hollande's supporters of arrogance for publicly boasting they had raised 10 times the 500 signatures required.

"Some candidates, like Francois Hollande, have got the wrong election. Does he think he can be elected by the mayors?" she said.

(Additional reporting by Vicky Buffery, Emmanuel Jarry and Elizabeth Pineau; Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Janet McBride)

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