Sarkozy’s chances fade two days before French runoff

Nicholas Sarkozy’s best hope remains to draw in more votes from supporters of eliminated candidates. (Reuters)

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s chances of clinging to power were fading two days before France’s election runoff after far-right and centrist leaders deserted him, despite polls putting Socialist Francois Hollande’s lead at its narrowest so far.

Centrist Francois Bayrou appeared to drive a nail into the conservative president’s political coffin by declaring on Thursday he would vote for Hollande, and accusing Sarkozy of pandering to the xenophobic, anti-European far-right and being obsessed with immigration.

Earlier this week, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who won 17.9 percent on the April 22 first round, also refused to endorse Sarkozy, saying she would cast a blank ballot on Sunday.

Final opinion polls issued on Friday - but taken before Bayrou’s surprise move - showed Hollande’s lead has narrowed to as little as five points from as wide as 10 in recent weeks. But Sarkozy still looked too far adrift to catch up after his rival performed ably in their only television debate.

Bayrou, a maverick who won 9 percent in the first round and is regularly voted France’s best liked politician, was withering in his criticism of Sarkozy’s harsh language on immigration and Europe, and told his supporters to make up their own minds.

A bitter Sarkozy retorted that Bayrou had indicated that having “thought about it carefully”, he would vote for a man who would “would lead the country to bankruptcy”.

“The important thing is that nearly all the politicians who back Francois Bayrou have rallied behind me,” Sarkozy told Europe 1 radio. “I thank them for that, and everyone else is free to vote as they choose.”

Polls conducted since Wednesday evening’s nearly three-hour television debate found Sarkozy making up some ground even though surveys of viewers of the debate found most felt Hollande was more convincing than the incumbent.

Pollsters say the apparent discrepancy is partly due to a higher turnout expected on Sunday.

Two polls by Ipsos and BVA found Hollande’s lead had narrowed by one percentage point, with 52.5 percent of voting intentions to Sarkozy’s 47.5 percent.

Surveys by CSA and Harris Interactive showed Hollande’s lead shrinking from eight points to six after the debate, with 53 percent support to Sarkozy’s 47 percent.

TNS-Sofres showed Hollande’s score edging down 1.5 points to 53.5 percent from last week, with Sarkozy rising to 46.5 percent from 45 percent previously.

“The difference is narrowing, there are still a lot of undecided voters and there can still be a few surprises,” said Pascal Perrineau, a political analyst at Science Po university.

Overconfidence

Despite his lead, Hollande said he could not totally rule out the possibility of defeat because the participation rate, transfer votes from eliminated candidates and blank votes would be key. Moreover, he said that he never underestimated Sarkozy.

“Where he made a mistake is that he underestimated me,” Hollande said in an interview on RTL radio. “In politics, he who underestimates is too confident in himself and commits an error of judgment.”

Having lagged the blander but more popular Hollande for weeks now in polls, Sarkozy’s best hopes of clinching a second term hinged on winning the support of around 80 percent of Le Pen’s voters for Sunday and at least half of Bayrou’s.

Bayrou objected to Sarkozy’s lurch to the right.

“The line Nicolas Sarkozy chose between the two rounds is violent. It contradicts our values,” the centrist said, explaining his decision to reject the incumbent who is closer to him politically than Hollande.

Sarkozy recalled that Bayrou had not voted for him in 2007 and put his decision down to personal “bitterness”.

Hollande welcomed Bayrou’s backing but ruled out forming an alliance with him or giving his party posts in the government should he win the election.

“He (Bayrou) could have stuck to not voting for Nicolas Sarkozy,” Hollande said. “But he went even further and I think he can convince men and women who are not on the left.”

Compounding a black week for the president, Sarkozy came across as agitated and tense in the nearly three-hour debate and failed to land a knockout blow on his challenger, who appeared more poised and confident.

Several surveys of people who watched the debate found that most felt Hollande was more convincing than Sarkozy.

Even Alain Minc, a political consultant who is one of Sarkozy’s closest friends and advisers, acknowledged that Hollande had outperformed his champion in the debate, watched by more than a third of the electorate.

“I think we all underestimated this guy. He’s shown quite an uncommon strength of spirit this year,” Minc told Reuters. “The Francois Hollande we are seeing today is different from the one we all knew. We took him for something other than he is. Either we were wrong or he has changed.”

In polls only 3 percent said the debate had changed their voting plans.

Brash and showy

Sarkozy has fought an uphill battle for re-election as economic gloom, his failure to keep a 2007 promise to cut unemployment to 5 percent, and a dislike of his brash and showy manner have turned many former supporters against him.

The rivals held their last big rallies on Thursday.

In the southern city of Toulon, Sarkozy implored voters not to elect what would be the first left-wing president in 17 years while, further west in Toulouse, Hollande supporters cheered Bayrou’s decision to vote for their candidate.

Friday is the last day of official campaigning before a blackout from midnight. Voting booths open at 8 a.m. (06:00 GMT) on Sunday and close either at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) or two hours later in big cities.

Reliable projections of the result based on a partial vote count will be published once the last polling stations close.

The runoff coincides with parliamentary elections in Greece, where voters are set to punish mainstream parties for imposing austerity, and a week before a major German regional election when Chancellor Angela Merkel may suffer a mid-term rebuff to her strict austerity policies.

For French voters, the economic crisis, Europe’s debt woes and pressure on household incomes have been the overriding issues, driving the wave of support for Le Pen’s National Front.

“It’s the people who are really struggling financially who vote for Le Pen,” said Dominique Reynie, a professor at Sciences Po University and head of the liberal think tank Fondapol.

“For the runoff, people voting for Sarkozy are thinking about somebody who can lead in Europe and handle the crisis. Those who vote for Hollande are thinking about their own purchasing power and social well-being.”

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