PARIS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy overtook Socialist challenger Francois Hollande for the first time Tuesday in an opinion poll on the first round of France’s April-May election after attacking the European Union’s trade and immigration policies.
The poll showed that Sarkozy would still lose to Hollande in a second-round runoff, however, albeit by a narrower margin of nine points, down from 13 points a fortnight ago.
While it was too soon to predict a turnaround, Sarkozy’s progress showed he had struck a chord with voters with a threat he made Sunday to erect unilateral barriers to trade and immigration unless the EU took a tougher stand on those issues.
EU diplomats have largely dismissed his ultimatum, made during a rally near Paris, to toughen border controls and protect European companies, as campaign rhetoric. But it spoke directly to the far-right voters he needs to recruit to his camp.
“It’s logical there’s a poll reaction to the speech, and we may well see more surveys showing the same thing, but the situation is still much more positive for Hollande,” said BNP Paribas economist Dominique Barbet.
“You can’t say it has turned around based on one poll, especially when there is still a nine point gap for the second round. Hollande’s second-round lead has been pretty steady.”
Having trailed Hollande for months, the Ifop/Fiducial survey showed that Sarkozy had suddenly leapfrogged ahead of him. It put Sarkozy’s first-round score at 28.5 percent, up from 27 percent at the end of February, and ahead of Hollande, who slipped to 27 percent from 28.5 percent.
It found that Hollande had slipped two points to 54.5 percent for round two, while Sarkozy had gained two points at 45.5 percent.
“The game is changing. It’s getting tighter,” said Ifop analyst Frederic Daby, noting Sarkozy’s challenge now is to keep adding far-right support without alienating centrists.
Hollande holds an advantage for the second round as more fringe voters say they would back him in a runoff than would back Sarkozy. But some still say they could change their minds.
“I hope the swallow we saw this morning will make the spring,” Alain Minc, a longtime advisor to Sarkozy, told the Europe 1 radio station, citing an ancient Greek proverb popular in France.
The morale-boost for Sarkozy came as far-right leader Marine Le Pen, ranked third in polls, said she had secured the 500 official sponsors needed to enter the presidential contest within days of a Friday evening deadline.
A failure by Le Pen to gather enough signatures could have caused an upset, given her 16 percent support level.
Election poll graphic: r.reuters.com/was36s
After a strong campaign start by Sarkozy in mid-February, Hollande seized back the momentum by proposing a 75 percent tax on annual income over a million euros which many French support.
Six weeks from the April 22 first round, Sarkozy will need to deliver more high-impact proposals to catch up with Hollande.
He played to a TV audience of millions Monday evening with a pledge to start making tax exiles pay some contributions back to France and promising to ease social charges on the self-employed if they are not making money.
An aide to Hollande told Reuters last week that the Socialist still had potential surprises up his own sleeve.
“Nothing is in the bag, but nothing is lost either,” Hollande told supporters. “I am sticking to my course.”
In what has quickly shaped up to be a two-man duel, Sarkozy is promising tighter immigration controls, structural economic reforms and policy referendums, while Hollande is running on a tax-and-spend program while also promising deficit cuts.
While Hollande enjoys high popularity ratings, Sarkozy is being punished for his failure, as the economic crisis rocked Europe, to deliver on a 2007 promise to restore full employment.
He also suffers from a widespread dislike of his impulsive and sometimes brash personality, and from an initial perception that he is too chummy with the wealthy elite.
Seeking to breathe new life into his campaign, Sarkozy said Sunday that Europe should have a law, modeled on the Buy American Act, requiring governments to buy European products. He also threatened to pull France out of Europe’s Schengen open-borders zone unless progress is made on controlling immigration.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Sarkozy was going down the wrong path. Hollande said his rival appeared to be running out of inspiration and was ready to “try anything.”
Sarkozy’s proposal to make tax exiles declare taxes paid abroad and pay France the difference with what they would have contributed if still resident follows pledges of executive pay curbs and a minimum tax on company profits.
An Opinionway survey Monday found that half of respondents think Hollande is running the strongest campaign, while 38 percent rated firebrand leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon’s most highly. Only 27 percent thought Sarkozy’s campaign was best.
With critics saying Sarkozy is leaning too far to the right, as he did in his 2007 campaign, Le Pen’s announcement to Reuters that she has the backing to run removed one major uncertainty.
“I am defending the vision of the France that I love,” she told a meeting of supporters later Tuesday.
A charismatic speaker who has won a strong following since taking over the party leadership from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen in January 2011, Le Pen snapped at Sarkozy’s heels in surveys last year. But she has slipped back in recent months and no longer seems likely to prevent Hollande and Sarkozy competing in a runoff.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Andrew Osborn