PARIS (Reuters) - France’s presidential rivals scrambled on Tuesday to seduce nearly a fifth of the electorate that voted for far right anti-immigration crusader Marine Le Pen, voicing sympathy for voters’ distress in the economic crisis.
Conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, fighting for his political life after being beaten into second place in Sunday’s first round, declared that no issues were taboo and hammered away at rallies and in interviews on Le Pen’s themes of fear of immigration, insecurity, Islam and unregulated trade.
His Socialist rival, Francois Hollande, who topped the poll and is favorite to win a May 6 runoff against Sarkozy, said National Front voters had expressed “social anger” and vowed to defend them from “financial globalization and a failing Europe”.
A cartoon in the daily Le Monde parodying Romeo and Juliette depicted Hollande and Sarkozy stabbing each other in the back while offering bouquets in French national colors and serenading Le Pen voters looking down from a balcony.
“Do you know these guys?” one hard-hatted Le Pen supporter in overalls asks. “Never seen them before,” his mate replies.
The first opinion poll to be taken since Sunday’s first round by the Ifop institute showed Hollande 10 points ahead of Sarkozy with 55 percent of voting intentions for the runoff.
Sarkozy used each campaign stop to address Le Pen’s six million voters while accusing the left of talking down to them.
“I want to talk to the little people, to the foot soldiers, to people in the countryside, to pensioners,” the president told one rally, saying the National Front leader had drawn a “crisis vote” in “the part of France that is suffering”.
“You are feeling afraid,” Sarkozy said, calling Le Pen’s record 18 percent score a wake-up call. “There is nothing reprehensible about this vote,” he added.
While describing himself as a secular republican, he invoked the heritage of the French monarchy and the Roman Catholic church in a play for nationalist votes.
Hollande ascribed Le Pen’s unprecedented score to despair among “a suffering electorate of office workers, artisans, and blue-collar workers who are really feeling abandoned”, as well as farmers struggling to make ends meet.
Those voters, some of whom came from the left, had wanted to punish not just Sarkozy but also the political system, Europe and globalization, he said.
The two rivals for the second round, which will determine who leads Europe’s number two economy, a nuclear power and an activist U.N. Security Council member, are adopting sharply contrasting tactics to woo potential swing voters.
Sarkozy played up divisive issues such as “real work” versus “assistance”, curbing public displays of Islam and reducing immigration, while Hollande tried to project himself as a calm, unifying presidential figure.
“Nicolas Sarkozy is constantly trying to create cleavages... when what people expect from a president, especially in times of crisis, is to be a unifier,” said veteran political scientist Roland Cayrol of the Centre for Studies and Analysis.
“By contrast, Francois Hollande, who is the heir to a political family that invented the fundamental cleavage of the class struggle, has adopted the posture of a unifier.”
Le Pen poured scorn on both main candidates, saying that her supporters had voted for her ideas, and not out of protest or distress at the crisis. She made clear her next objective was to win seats in parliament in June and lead “the real opposition”.
Based on Sunday’s vote, the National Front could reach the second round in some 345 constituencies, more than half of the 577 seats, potentially splitting the right-wing vote in a major threat to Sarkozy’s UMP party.
Le Pen said she would outline her view of the second round choice at a rally on May 1, but senior aides made clear she was highly unlikely to endorse either candidate.
Analysts say her party’s strategy is based on defeating Sarkozy in the belief that his ruling UMP party would fall apart after a lost election, and the National Front would play a dominant role in a right-wing realignment.
Bickering has already broken out in the UMP over what to do if voters face a choice between a Socialist and a National Front candidate. Former sports minister Chantal Jouanno, a UMP senator, said she would vote Socialist in that case. Interior Minister Claude Gueant said he could not vote National Front.
But Prime Minister Francois Fillon said: “These are stupid and counter-productive comments.”
In preparation for the parliamentary elections, the National Front has registered the name “Marine Blue Rally” - a play on Le Pen’s name and the French term for the dark navy blue color.
A leadership source said no decision had been taken to change the party’s name as part of Le Pen’s attempt to shed its past xenophobic image, but the new name could be used for a broader alliance of candidates in the June elections.
Projecting himself as the outsider in the race and a victim of media and establishment bias, Sarkozy rejected the idea that Le Pen would arbitrate his duel with Hollande.
“There’s only one referee of the second round, as there was in the first round. It’s not the pollsters, it’s not the pundits, it’s the French people, and the French people are free. And it’s not Mrs. Le Pen either,” he told France 2 television.
Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry,; Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Mark Heinrich