April 20, 2012 / 9:45 AM / 5 years ago

French election rivals in final race for workers

Official campaign posters for French President and UMP political party candidate Nicolas Sarkozy (R) and Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande, for the 2012 French presidential election, are displayed on a wall in Paris April 16, 2012.Philippe Wojazer

PARIS (Reuters) - Socialist presidential frontrunner Francois Hollande appealed to French voters to throw out conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and shun the far right in a final push for working-class votes before Sunday's first round of the election.

As Sarkozy campaigned in the Mediterranean city of Nice, where the far right enjoys strong support, Hollande urged those angry over unemployment and economic gloom and tempted by National Front leader Marine Le Pen to listen to him instead.

In the industrial northeast, Hollande spoke of hardships: "This is a region that put its faith in Nicolas Sarkozy, who came here making speeches on industry, jobs, workers. Everybody can see the scale of the disappointment," he said.

"Now, it's the Left's turn to govern the country," he told a crowd in Charleville-Mezieres, the town where Sarkozy first used his "working more to earn more" 2007 campaign pledge.

Sarkozy faces defeat in part because his pledge was derailed by an economic crisis which drove up jobless claims to a 12-year high. A dislike of his personal manner also weighs against him.

A swathe of final polls published on Friday mostly showed Sarkozy's support eroding while Hollande's backing held steady.

At a packed concert hall in Nice, Sarkozy urged a crowd of several thousand to prove the polls wrong. "Don't let your voice to be stolen - impose your victory, come out en masse on Sunday to cast your votes," he said.

"The policies we have conducted for the past five years belong to history now and history will decide," Sarkozy said in a 55-minute speech delivered without notes. "I say that so every French person can make up his mind with all the facts."

The two rivals are about 10 points ahead of third-ranked Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader, in surveys for Sunday's first round, with hard leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon, the surprise of the campaign, challenging Le Pen for third place.

Sarkozy and Hollande are set to face off in a May 6 decider for which the Socialist has a comfortable lead of between 7 and 14 percentage points.

That would give France its first left-wing head of state in 17 years just as new concerns over debt in the euro zone are throwing strained public finances in the bloc's number two economy under the spotlight.

The risk premium investors charge for holding French 10-year bonds over German Bunds rose above 1.50 percentage points in a possible foretaste of market jitters over an Hollande victory.

Traders think he may face pressure to go beyond his centre-left program if a resurgent hard left makes gains in June parliamentary elections and possibly holds the balance of power.

For many ordinary voters, the election is a choice between two styles of leadership. "He's (Sarkozy) too arrogant, too sure of himself. Flaunting his wealth when people are unemployed," said Rene Taze, a middle-aged engraver eating lunch in a Paris bistro With his paper supplier.

"He's a show-off. He gets on my nerves. He promised all these things that never happened," said Taze's companion, Lina Mascherin, 63. "You can't trust a man who is constantly changing. We are not gullible in France."

Euro Crisis Clash

As final opinion polls showed Hollande pulling further ahead, the two rivals clashed over the euro crisis on the last day of campaigning before a midnight blackout.

In separate radio interviews, Sarkozy said his role helping steer the euro zone through the worst of its debt crisis made him the safest pair of hands for the future, while Hollande blamed his adversary for mismanaging France's public finances.

"The risk of the euro imploding doesn't exist anymore," Sarkozy told the broadcaster RTL. "Europe is convalescent. That's a reality. We can't afford any mistakes. The minute we ease up on cutting spending, reducing the deficit, reducing the debt, France will share the fate of Spain."

Spain's economy is weighed down by debt and its government is struggling to convince lenders it can remain solvent.

Hollande told Europe 1 radio that France's budget problems were the result of five years of Sarkozy's policies, and called for European action to revive growth to fight the debt crisis.

"The important thing is to put our public finances in order. They've been turned completely upside down these past years due to irresponsible fiscal policy and the crisis," he said.

He called for the European Central Bank to take a radically different role by lending directly to troubled euro zone states rather than to banks, and by keeping interest rates low. But he acknowledged Germany opposed expanding the ECB's role.

Financial markets worry that Hollande's focus on tax rises over spending cuts, and his plan to raise taxation on the financial sector, could drive up French bond yields and spur volatility in stock markets.

An Ipsos poll showed Sarkozy down 1.5 points on 25.5 percent in round one, with Hollande on 29. A Harris Interactive poll gave Sarkozy 26.5 percent to Hollande's 27.5.

Le Pen, on 17 percent in the Harris poll, also criticised the EU, telling dairy farmers in a depressed area of Brittany that she would protect them against Brussels. "Brussels wants to do away with our farmers, our fishermen, our artisans - with all the people who make up our country's strength."

Asked why she had not visited France's immigrant-heavy suburbs, Le Pen, said: "Everyone spends ages in the suburbs. Well, I don't go there. I go to the countryside because that's where the overwhelming majority of French people live."

Melenchon Clenches Fist

Firebrand leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon vowed to break up the Franco-German "Merkozy" leadership duo with conservative German Chancellor Angela Merkel which he said had imposed austerity on the people of Europe.

He also said France should emulate Latin America's left-wing revolutions and nationalize oil company Total, as Argentina said this week it would do with its main energy firm.

"The revolutions in Latin America are a source of inspiration for us," he told foreign media at his headquarters in a disused shoe factory on the eastern edge of Paris.

Melenchon said his party's priority was to get Sarkozy out of power and then pull an Hollande government to the left.

"I appeal to you, left-wing comrades who are listening and hesitating, come and help us not just overtake the extreme-right but raise the demands of the left," he told a campaign rally on Thursday. Clenching his fists, he joined hands with Communist leaders to sing the socialist anthem the Internationale.

A large majority of Melenchon voters tell pollsters they plan to vote Hollande in the runoff, while supporters of Le Pen and centrist Francois Bayrou are more split.

"What counts is that transfer votes to Sarkozy are very low, which explains Hollande's strong score for the second round," analyst Frederic Dabi at pollster Ifop told Reuters.

Additional reporting by Alexandria Sage, Nick Vinocur, Yann Le Guernigou and Pierre-Henri Allain; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Giles Elgood

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