* Socialist Hollande says economic immigration must be
* Presidential frontrunner would uphold burqa ban
* Sarkozy defends immigration issue as central to all voters
By Alexandria Sage
PARIS, April 27 Presidential frontrunner
Francois Hollande, under pressure to respond to France's one in
five far-right voters, said on Friday that limiting the number
of foreigners entering the country to work was justified during
an economic crisis.
"In a period of crisis, which we are experiencing, limiting
economic immigration is necessary and essential," the Socialist
said in a tentative concession to extreme-right voters who will
be crucial to a May 6 presidential runoff.
While conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy has swung hard
right on immigration since National Front leader Marine Le Pen
won 17.9 percent of Sunday's first-round vote, Hollande has
limited himself to saying those voters must be listened to.
Hollande answered evasively when asked repeatedly on
prime-time television on Thursday whether he thought there were
too many foreigners in France, as Sarkozy and Le Pen have both
proclaimed in campaign speeches.
Clarifying his position after his evasions drew criticism,
he told RTL radio on Friday that if elected, he would have
parliament fix an annual quota for non-European Union foreigners
coming to France to take up jobs.
"There will always be legal immigration. Can the number be
reduced? That's the debate," Hollande said, noting Sarkozy had
already reduced the government's annual target for economic
migrants to 20,000 from 30,000.
"In my view, that's the kind of level that would apply in
times of crisis. In any case, the numbers will be managed."
Hollande also said he would uphold and enforce a ban on
all-enveloping Muslim veils, known as the niqab or burqa, even
though he abstained in a 2010 parliamentary vote when Sarkozy
proposed the law.
His comment seemed designed to counter attempts by Sarkozy
to tar him with the brush of radical Islam, notably by alleging
that controversial Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan had endorsed
Hollande, which the Swiss academic has denied.
The huge vote for Le Pen, who proposes giving preference to
French nationals for job openings, welfare benefits and public
housing and penalising firms employing illegal immigrants,
revealed frustration over a relentless rise in unemployment.
An election race dominated from the start by the economy has
now boiled down to whether Sarkozy can lure enough of Le Pen's
supporters to his side in the runoff to eat into Hollande's lead
of between 6 and 10 percentage points in polls taken this week.
Illustrating the number of votes he could still harvest, a
Harris Interactive survey published on Friday found that 31
percent of Le Pen voters plan to abstain on May 6, while 48
percent would vote Sarkozy and 21 percent would back Hollande.
HOLLANDE TREADING CAREFULLY
Piling more pressure on the beleaguered Sarkozy, the only
sitting president to lose a first-round re-election ballot,
jobless claims rose for the 11th month running in March to hit
their highest level since September 1999.
Foreign commentators have criticised the presidential
contenders for focusing too heavily on secondary domestic issues
and not addressing a lack of labour market flexibility which
they say is holding back job creation and stifling growth.
Financial markets are fretting anew about the risk that
anaemic economic growth will derail deficit-cutting targets in
the No. 2 euro zone economy, which has promised to bring down
the budget shortfall to 3 percent of output in 2013.
Even before the Le Pen vote, Sarkozy was hammering hard on
the need to curb immigration and protect French producers from
cheap competition. On Friday, he lashed back at suggestions that
he was leaning too far to the right.
"Do you think those whom you call centrists think it is
perfectly normal that everyone can come into France, that there
is no immigration problem, that the integration system works?"
he asked on RTL radio.
"Do you think giving immigrants the right to vote is
something that only shocks the voters of Marine Le Pen?" he
said, referring to Hollande's proposal to let non-EU nationals
resident in France for five years vote in local elections.
Henri Guaino, Sarkozy's speechwriter and senior adviser,
said uncontrolled immigration was a problem affecting all of
Europe and should not be seen as a far-right issue.
"His plan is above all to put borders at the heart of
politics. This isn't a far-right problem, it's not even a
problem of the right," he told Radio Classique. "It's a central
issue from which all other problems in Europe and France ensue."
The focus on Le Pen voters since Sunday has left Hollande
with the dilemma of how to reach left-wing defectors to the
National Front by voicing understanding economic gloom while not
taking any position that would offend his core support base.
A BVA poll released on Friday showed Hollande gaining 1.5
percentage points to 54.5 percent of voter intentions for the
second round versus 45.5 percent for Sarkozy. A CSA poll showed
a narrower lead with Hollande at 54 percent, down 2 points from
last week, and Sarkozy at 46 percent.
The Harris Interactive survey found that of those voters who
backed centrist Francois Bayrou in round one, 41 percent would
back Hollande on May 6 and 36 percent would back Sarkozy.
Hollande also stands to benefit from the backing of 92
percent of those who supported hard leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon,
who won 11 percent in the first-round vote.