PARIS Unease is growing in French President Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right UMP party a week before a presidential election over his lurch to the right in pursuit of supporters of anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen.
Some mainstream conservatives have voiced public dismay at his embrace of the campaign themes, language and even some proposals of Le Pen's National Front. In private conversations, doubts are widespread about the morality and effectiveness of the strategy.
In the last week, Sarkozy has repeatedly declared that there are too many foreigners in France and vowed to reduce legal immigration. Echoing a Le Pen proposal, he has called for police to be given greater license to shoot fleeing crime suspects.
He has accused his Socialist rival Francois Hollande of being backed by Islamists and said Le Pen's voters are respectable and her party compatible with the French Republic.
"Even though I will vote for Nicolas Sarkozy on the second round, it's clearly my duty to ring the alarm bell about this strategy," Etienne Pinte, a UMP lawmaker, told Reuters.
He said former prime ministers Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Alain Juppe, Sarkozy's foreign minister, had made clear in internal meetings their reticence about the rightward drift.
"All through the campaign, we felt there were misgivings among a number of parliamentary colleagues and the two former prime ministers about the exploitation of these extreme-right themes," Pinte said.
Sarkozy hardened his discourse as soon as the results of last Sunday's first round showed Le Pen, with nearly 18 percent, had won twice as many votes as centrist Francois Bayrou. The president needs to draw support from both sides to beat Hollande, the clear frontrunner in opinion polls, in the May 6 second-round runoff.
Raffarin hinted at his distaste in an interview with the newspaper Le Monde last week, saying: "If I were to express reservations today, it would weaken my own side ... but I remain attached to the humanitarian values of our program."
Asked whether the strategy drawn up by Sarkozy's political guru Patrick Buisson, a former extreme-right newspaper editor, had not strengthened the far right, Raffarin said the time for analysis would come after May 6.
"We are in a battle now, and in a battle, the honorable thing is to be loyal," he said.
"CROSSING RED LINE"
Another former Gaullist prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, a bitter rival of Sarkozy, deplored what he called "crossing one republican red line after another (in a) shameless seduction of extremist votes".
Without mentioning Sarkozy by name, Villepin, who failed to collect the required 500 nominating signatures from elected officials for his own candidacy, warned the mainstream right in an article in Le Monde against betraying its own values.
"One would think there were only National Front voters in France," he wrote. "As if there were not more important issues than halal meat, legal immigration and (single-sex or mixed) bathing hours in public swimming pools."
Sarkozy has played up each of those issues in his quest to win over Le Pen voters.
While Villepin's assault came as no surprise, given their mutual loathing, other dissent has been more damaging to the president.
UMP senator Chantal Jouanno, a former karate champion whom Sarkozy made his sports minister, irked him by saying that if she had a choice between a National Front candidate and a Socialist, she would vote for the Socialist.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon rebuked her publicly for making "stupid and counter-productive comments".
"THE SUN IS YELLOW"
Sarkozy has ruled out any parliamentary or government alliance with Le Pen's party, but he is keen not to close any doors for recovering her voters.
Another UMP senator, Jean-Rene Lecerf, told PublicSenat.fr website he "totally disagreed" with Sarkozy's call to change the law so that police officers who shoot suspects are presumed to have acted in legitimate self-defense unless proven otherwise.
Privately, some ministers and pro-government lawmakers say Sarkozy would do better to stress reviving economic growth and employment, investment and training - themes on which Hollande is dominating the debate for the moment.
Opinion pollster Gael Sliman of the BVA institute said there was no sign that Sarkozy's approach was paying off in voting intentions.
"The latest poll is 54.5 percent (for Hollande) to 45.5 percent. Transfers from Le Pen are still very unsatisfactory, indeed they are down since last Sunday, as if running after this electorate too blatantly were counter-productive ... Clearly, it isn't working," Sliman told Reuters.
But the president is unrepentant about his strategy.
"When Marine Le Pen says the sun is yellow and the sea is blue, do I have to say the opposite?" he asked on France 2 television when questioned about his embrace of some of her ideas and proposals.
"Aren't we entitled to talk about immigration? Don't we have the right to talk about the role of Europe and its function to protect us rather than expose us to globalization?" he added in an interview published by Le Parisien daily on Sunday.
(Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Geert De Clercq and Elizabeth Piper)