Sarkozy, cornered, threatens Left with a "lesson"
PARIS (Reuters) - With his back against the wall, President Nicolas Sarkozy brushed off opinion polls that show he will lose France's presidential election to deliver a defiant speech three days from the first round of the vote.
The incumbent, who is forecast to lose to Socialist Francois Hollande by some 10 percentage points in a May 6 run-off, chose an affluent suburb of Paris to hold his second-to-last rally before voters head to the polls on Sunday.
In a speech that swung between whispers and roars, Sarkozy promised to halve immigration, overhaul France's unemployment scheme and push the European Union to impose tougher conditions on trade with emerging nations.
But the main thrust of his rally was an assault on opponents in the media and the so-called Parisian "caviar Left", whom he accused of having decided on the election's outcome before people had cast their votes.
"(The vote) will teach all those people a lesson like they have never been taught before," he told some 500 flag-waving supporters, without specifying whether the "lesson" might be his re-election, a higher score than polls give him or something else.
"It's nine against one," he said, referring to the field of ten first-round candidates. "But the people of France refuse to be told what to do."
Sarkozy, elected in 2007 with 53 percent of votes against Socialist Segolene Royal, is entering the last stretch of his term saddled with an approval rating of just 33 percent and the worst poll scores of any modern French president seeking re-election.
A BVA poll published this week gave him 27.5 percent of votes in Sunday's first round, versus 29.5 for Hollande and a crushing 12-point gap for round two at 44 percent, with 56 percent for Hollande.
Other first-round opinion polls show Sarkozy neck-and-neck with his main rival or slipping behind him by one or two points, after a brief stretch in which he was seen in first place.
As dark clouds gather over Sarkozy's chances hours before a campaign blackout from midnight on Friday, the atmosphere among his supporters on Thursday was a blend of cautious hope, combativeness and defiance against the media.
"You journalists should be sitting in the back; you don't deserve to be in front!" one elderly lady shouted at reporters at the rally in Saint-Maurice, a quaint town of 15,000 with a centre-right mayor.
While Sarkozy hardens his rhetoric, Hollande has stuck to his slow and steady approach, encouraging left-wing supporters to vote and avoid a repeat of the 2002 election, when the far-right's Jean-Marie Le Pen knocked out former Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin in the first round, largely due to high abstention.
An IFOP poll two weeks ago showed that abstention could be as high as 32 percent on Sunday.
Sarkozy, rejected by many French people because of his aggressive tone and embracing of issues normally co-opted by the far-right, showed no sign of rowing back from controversial positions on Muslim symbols like halal meat and full-face veils.
But he urged supporters to reject far-right chief Marine Le Pen, polling at 14 percent in the BVA poll. "A vote for Marine Le Pen is as good as a vote for Francois Hollande," he said. "Tipping up the table will not solve any problems."
Jean-Marc Alomallo, a 45-year-old male nurse from Paris holding a rolled up French flag outside the rally, said he would vote for Sarkozy on the back of his attitude on immigration.
In a campaign taking place against a backdrop of deep anxiety about jobs and the economy, the left-right divide has become sharply polarized, with Le Pen and hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon sharing some 30 percent of the vote.
Still, Sarkozy's camp holds out hope of convincing undecided voters, which a study by political science institute CEVIPOF measured at 46 percent in late March, to switch sides.
Samia Benkhader, a 38-year-old mother and human resources worker, said she was one of them. "It's true that we get the impression that things are decided in advance... I think there may be a big surprise."
(Editing by Louise Ireland)
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