Paris - France's presidential rivals vied on Tuesday to seduce nearly a fifth of the electorate that voted for far-right anti-immigration crusader Marine Le Pen, voicing understanding 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, said no issues were taboo and veered sharply to the right in the quest for Le Pen voters.
At rallies and in interviews, he hammered away on Le Pen's trademark themes of fear of immigration, insecurity, Islam, free trade and “a Europe that is open to all winds”.
His Socialist rival, Francois Hollande, who topped the poll and is favourite to beat Sarkozy in the May 6 runoff, said National Front voters had expressed “social anger” and vowed to defend them from “financial globalisation and a failing Europe”.
An opinion poll taken after the first ballot showed two-thirds of Sarkozy's supporters want his centre-right UMP party to strike an alliance with Le Pen's movement for the parliamentary election in June, contrary to party policy.
Finance Minister Francois Baroin, a senior UMP leader, said in response: “There has never been and there will never be an agreement with the far right.”
A cartoon in the daily Le Monde parodying Romeo and Juliet depicted Hollande and Sarkozy stabbing each other in the back while offering bouquets in French national colours 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.
Another opinion poll taken after Sunday's first round by the Ifop institute showed Hollande 10 points ahead of Sarkozy with 55 percent of voting intentions for the runoff.
The Socialist, who has been cautious up to now about his chances, told a rally in Hirson, northeastern France, that he felt a historic victory was now imminent.
“I think we are going to win the presidential election. I feel it, I see it, I hope it, I want it,” Hollande said.
Sarkozy used each campaign stop to address Le Pen's 6.4 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 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 historical heritage of the French monarchy and Christianity in a play for nationalist votes.
Hollande ascribed Le Pen's unprecedented score to economic 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 the political system, Europe and globalisation, 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 United Nations Security Council member, adopted 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 her supporters had voted for her ideas and not out of protest or distress at the crisis.
“Their pick-up lines are getting really heavy. It's a bit cynical,” she told BFMTV.
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 up to 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 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.
But Prime Minister Francois Fillon said: “These are stupid and counter-productive comments.” Interior Minister Claude Gueant said he could not vote National Front.
In preparation for the parliamentary election, 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 colour.
Le Pen said no decision had been taken to change the party's name as part of her drive to shed its past xenophobic image, but the new name would be used for a broader alliance of candidates in the June election. - Reuters