6 Min Read
* Socialist Hollande says economic immigration must be limited
* Presidential frontrunner would uphold burqa ban
* Sarkozy defends immigration issue as central to all voters
By Alexandria Sage
PARIS, April 27 (Reuters) - 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.
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.