Le Pen wounds Sarkozy, refuses to endorse
PARIS (Reuters) - French far-right leader Marine Le Pen delivered a further blow on Tuesday to President Nicolas Sarkozy's hopes of re-election by refusing to endorse him and telling her six million supporters to make their own choice at Sunday's ballot.
Sarkozy, who faces off against Socialist Francois Hollande on May 6, needs many of the 17.9 percent of voters who chose National Front leader Le Pen last week to switch to backing him in the runoff if he is to overcome first-round winner Hollande.
But Le Pen, who came third on April 22 with a score that eclipsed her father's record at the head of the populist protest movement, told a rally in Paris on Tuesday that she personally would spoil her ballot paper in the second round by choosing to vote for neither of the two remaining contenders.
"I will not grant my trust, or a mandate, to these two candidates," she told supporters at an annual commemoration of Joan of Arc, the national saint her group favors to the May Day celebrations held by international labor and leftist parties.
"On Sunday, I will cast a blank ballot."
Le Pen did not further twist the knife for the conservative incumbent by urging her 6.4 million voters to do likewise. But in leaving them to make their own minds up she left it unclear how many will stay at home or even vote for Hollande, who is running a six- to 10-percentage point lead in opinion polls.
"I have made my choice," she said. "Each of you will make yours."
Analysts had calculated that Sarkozy might need as many as 80 percent of Le Pen's first-round voters if he were to win. But polls indicate only about half of them intend to.
With a parliamentary election to come in June, National Front leaders believe they can break through and win seats in the legislature, especially if a heavy defeat for Sarkozy plunges his centre-right UMP party into deeper disarray.
MAY DAY DISPUTES
Being punished for economic gloom, rife unemployment and a widespread dislike of his presidential manner, Sarkozy is the most unpopular sitting president to run for re-election and the first in the 54 years of the current electoral system to lose a first-round vote to a challenger.
Hollande, a mild-mannered centre-leftist running on a tax-and-spend platform, would be the first left-wing president in 17 years to lead the euro zone's second biggest economy.
As Sarkozy prepared to address supporters at another rally in the capital, Hollande made his own campaign speech in central France, where he visited the tomb of Socialist former prime minister Pierre Beregovoy, who shot himself on May 1, 1993.
He slammed Sarkozy for trying to distract from labor day marches where senior Socialists will be guests of honor.
"May 1 is a celebration of the unions. I can't accept that in France on May 1 there is a battle against unionism," he said.
Sarkozy said earlier that the left had no exclusive rights over May Day. "I didn't realize that May Day was reserved for the union struggle," he told RMC radio.
"It's to celebrate work, a founding value of our society."
Le Pen's surprise score in the first round has thrown the last days of the election race into disarray with Sarkozy striving to court her voters without alienating the centrists he also needs.
"I need the centrist voters and those who abstained just as much as I need those who voted for Marine Le Pen in the first round," Sarkozy said.
However, he appeared to rule out considering centrist Francois Bayrou as a potential prime minister, suggesting there was no deal in the works with him for his support in the runoff.
Bayrou scored just 9.1 percent in the first round, coming fifth, but Sarkozy needs as many of those supporters as possible to back him on Sunday. Polls show that Bayrou's backers are split evenly between Sarkozy and Hollande, with roughly a third planning to vote for each and the rest undecided or abstaining.
Sarkozy said, however, that picking a prime minister from a minority party was not possible, his comment coming after criticism from Bayrou over his attempts to woo both the far-right and the centre.
In a fiery speech to thousands of supporters waving French flags, Le Pen slammed Sarkozy's rhetoric on the need to strengthen borders and maintain a clear national identity as pure theatrics and labeled him and Hollande as lackeys of the European Central Bank, IMF and European Commission.
"The French have started their emancipation," she said, scorning the mainstream parties, the UMP and PS, or Socialists, as an indistinguishable "UMPS" bloc.
"The UMPS will not succeed," she said. "All of their efforts cannot stop us growing and cannot block our path to power."
Mockery of the two remaining candidates was a common theme among Le Pen's supporters:
"Sarkozy and Hollande, they are exactly the same," said an 18-year-old who gave her name as Justine. "If there is a difference between the two it's their height."
(Writing and additional reporting by John Irish; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Alastair Macdonald)
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