* Sarkozy needs conservative rural vote for re-election bid
* Annual Paris fair sees candidates coo over cows, shake
* Sarkozy heads farmer polls but far right erodes 2007 score
* Farm show suggests higher farm income helps regain support
(Adds quotes, colour)
By Gus Trompiz and Alexandria Sage
PARIS, Feb 28 A warmer reception for
Nicolas Sarkozy at this year's Paris farm show - where
politicians traipse through the straw to steer support their way
- suggests the French president's push to reclaim rural voters
is making headway.
The presidential race has been in full swing since Sarkozy
declared his candidacy in mid-February and began campaigning
hard to overturn Socialist challenger Francois Hollande's clear
lead in opinion polls.
With the nation proud of its farm industry, the two rivals
have each visited the annual agricultural fair to shake hands,
pat cows, and compliment farmers on their livestock.
Farmers are a traditional bulwark for the conservative UMP
party in Europe's top agricultural nation, yet many were put off
by Sarkozy's city-bred image, his blunders at past farm shows
and his early championing of environmental regulation.
Disaffection among farmers contributed to the UMP's heavy
defeat in regional elections in 2010. Since then, Sarkozy has
courted the farming world with financial support and speeches in
which he has taken swipes at environmentalists.
Hollande, a distant fourth among farmers in polls, became on
Tuesday the third candidate in four days to visit the show. The
Socialist, standing in front of a cow called "Audacious", told
reporters he had come "to listen, understand and tell farmers
that we need them".
Sarkozy used his four-hour visit to the show on Saturday,
his longest yet at the annual event, to voice campaign priories
such as industrial competitiveness and a better work ethic,
notions that play well with farmers.
His near-dawn arrival to watch cows being milked and to sit
down for breakfast with livestock breeders helped smooth over
memories of past gaffes, such as when he insulted a man who
would not shake his hand at the 2008 show.
"The atmosphere is more relaxed than before when there was
real tension between farmers and the government," said Bernard
Basile, a dairy farmer from the northern Seine-Maritime region.
"He was campaigning - but the message about competitiveness
and France as a land of production was a bit new and I welcome
that," said Xavier Beulin, head of the FNSEA farm union.
Two polls published on the eve of the farm show put Sarkozy
well ahead among farmers for the April 22 first round, with 40
percent next to scores below 20 percent for other candidates.
Sarkozy hopes intensive campaigning will rally wavering
conservatives. The fact he was accompanied at the farm show by
Frederic Nihous, leader of a small countryside party who last
week pulled out of the election race to back Sarkozy, was a
clear gesture towards rural voters.
"Nicolas Sarkozy is starting to re-mobilise his electoral
base," said Eric Bonnet, director of research at pollster BVA.
Still, even those who back Sarkozy say the handshakes and
bonhomie don't necessarily translate into benefits. "There's a
lot of fuss," said Maurice, an animal breeder from eastern
France. "And the rest of the year they don't think about us."
LE PEN TEMPTS FED-UP FARMERS
Around a million people work in farming, according to a 2010
government census, out of a population of about 65 million.
Pollsters say their high turnout in elections makes farmers
Sarkozy's poll lead with farmers is comfortable but some way
short of the estimated 51 percent of them who supported him in
the 2007 first round.
Hollande poses little threat to Sarkozy's farm base, despite
representing the same rural area as ex-president Jacques Chirac,
ever-popular with farmers since serving as agriculture minister
in the 1970s.
Polls show Hollande languishing near 10 percent in farmers'
first-round voting intentions, similar to the score achieved by
2007 Socialist candidate Segolene Royal. His party's alliance
with the Greens is a sore point for farmers.
In the countryside, the threat to Sarkozy comes more from
centrist Francois Bayrou, a rural politician ranked second in
farmer voting polls at 18 percent, and from far-right leader
Marine Le Pen, on 15 percent.
The FNSEA, a powerful lobby, says farmers are still bitter
about red tape from the so-called "Grenelle" environmental
legislation ushered in by Sarkozy early in his term.
The law imposed big cuts in pesticide use, which farmers
consider unrealistic and bad for business, and encourages
activists to block projects such as artificial rainwater tanks.
"Farmers are very bitter," the FNSEA's Beulin said. "After
all, it was this government that put the Grenelle in place."
That resentment could dovetail with longstanding irritation
at bureaucracy generated by the EU's Common Agricultural Policy
(CAP) to draw voters towards Le Pen. Farmers support the CAP for
the big subsidies they get, but resent the red tape it involves.
Whereas Le Pen wants to take France out of the CAP and
resume making farm policy at home, Sarkozy has long worked to
preserve EU farm spending, of which France is the top
Still, Le Pen's poll ratings among farmers are more than
double her father Jean-Marie's 2007 election tally of 7 percent.
"A lot of farmers will vote for Le Pen as a protest," said
Damien Greffin, head of the FNSEA's Paris branch, which once
dumped hay outside Sarkozy's presidential palace in a protest.
Still, a timely upturn in milk and beef prices, for which
Farm Minister Bruno Le Maire has claimed credit, could lift
Sarkozy three years after a strike in the milk sector.
"Things are better," said Laurent Francois, a cattle breeder
and milk producer from Seine-Maritime. "We're making a bit of
money whereas a couple of years ago we were earning nothing."
(Editing by Catherine Bremer and Alastair Macdonald)