* Sarkozy needs conservative rural vote for re-election bid
* Annual Paris fair sees candidates coo over cows, shake hands
* 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 (Reuters) - 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.”
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 disproportionately influential.
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 beneficiary.
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)