President Nicolas Sarkozy starkly laid out his path to re-election on Monday: He will be plunging deep into far-right territory to hunt the votes he needs to beat Socialist challenger Francois Hollande in the runoff.
France's incumbent president and UMP ruling party's candidate for the 2012 presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy, talks with wine growers on Monday in Vouvray as part of the campagin visit. [China Daily]
A day after Hollande won a slim upper hand in the first round of voting, Sarkozy candidly ogled voters of the far-right National Front whose candidate, Marine Le Pen, placed a solid third. She gave the party its highest-ever score, nearly 18 percent - close to one-in-five voters and the biggest surprise of Sunday's first round vote.
Le Pen and her anti-immigration party want to pull France out of the euro currency, reinstate border controls, crack down on immigrants and stamp out what she claims is the Islamization of France.
"The word 'protectionism' isn't a dirty word," Sarkozy said on Monday during a rousing speech in Saint-Cyr-Sur-Loire, near Tours, southwest of Paris.
Protecting the French identity, French civilization, French borders, French workers, French youth, French retirees were all on Sarkozy's agenda - and all are themes dear to the National Front.
Sarkozy and Hollande, both 57, used their first post-election speeches to lure far-right voters to their respective camps ahead of the May 6 final round. But Hollande did so more softly.
The math is brutal. Hollande won 28.6 percent of Sunday's vote, Sarkozy won 27.2 percent and both need votes from Le Pen's far right to climb over 50 percent - but mostly Sarkozy. Hollande is expected to get many of the backers of far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon who won 11 percent. The 9 percent who voted for centrist candidate Francois Bayrou are also in play.
Sarkozy named the National Front, and in a bid to destigmatize those who vote for the far-right party, said he respects them.
On the left some people "hold their noses", he said. "I want to say that we have heard them (the far right) and know how to respond with precise commitments."
The commitment he clearly named was tightening French borders - with or without other European countries - to keep them from becoming a "sieve" for immigrants and others.
"Europe must change so as not to be perceived as a threat but as a protection," he said.
For his part, Hollande said some voters cast ballots for Le Pen because they feel the system has left them behind.
"We have to look further for voters," Hollande said in a speech in Quimper, in the western region of Brittany. "Women and men who don't know where to go ... go toward the extreme."
Both candidates warned about the spread of populism around Europe - what Sarkozy called a "crisis vote" by a population hurt by the effects of the debt crisis and left behind in a globalized world.
Voter frustration with the status quo and with the EU fed a rise of support for extremes at both ends of the political scale, with nearly 30 percent of France's 44 million voters backing candidates of the far right and left.
Wooing Le Pen's supporters is a more difficult task. She has said in the past she won't give followers instructions on how to vote on May 6.
"I've long considered Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande as being of a same mind on issues I consider essential, starting with the sovereignty of our country," she told French television Monday evening.
"I no longer believe in Nicolas Sarkozy's sincerity," she added.