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Time running out for Sarkozy as French vote nears

Sarkozy moves to the right with comments on halal meat designed to revive his appeal among white working class voters

AFP , Monday 5 Mar 2012
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With less than seven weeks to go before the first round of voting, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy remains several points behind Socialist rival Francois Hollande in the opinion polls, and the gap seems to be widening again after a brief respite.

A Sunday poll from LH2-Yahoo! forecast that Hollande would win the 6 May second round run-off with 58 percent of the vote to Sarkozy's 42, a margin of victory three points wider than in the same poll last month.

An earlier poll published Friday by the Ifop institute pointed in the same direction, with the gap between Hollande and Sarkozy in the first round of polling stretching to 3.5 percent, up from one percent the week before.

Taken together, the polls suggest a brief surge in support for Sarkozy's candidature after he officially entered the race on 15 February has faded, leaving him in more or less the same place relative to his rival.

Sarkozy's response has been to attempt to rally his right-wing base with attacks on multiculturalism and on Hollande's plan to allow foreign French residents to vote in local elections.

He is due to hammer home this theme in a week of major broadcast interviews culminating in a large campaign rally on Sunday at an exhibition centre in Paris northeastern suburbs, an area of heavy immigration.

"To separate citizenship, nationality and the right to vote undermines the Republic," Sarkozy declared at a Saturday rally, vowing to prevent foreigners from voting and to toughen the rules for gaining citizenship.

"We must put new conditions in place. A job, a decent home and the commitment to learn French," he said, before attempting to stir more controversy over the hot-button issue of meat-labelling.

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen has made the issue of halal food – meat slaughtered according to Muslim traditions a campaign issue, alleging that it is being widely sold unlabelled to non-Muslim consumers.

Despite his government's denials that this practice is widespread Sarkozy took Le Pen's bait and returned to the theme in his speech: "We recognise that everyone has the right to know what they are eating, halal or otherwise."

As usual, his hardline Interior Minister Claude Gueant went further, linking the controversy with Hollande's vote pledge, by alleging that "foreign town councillors" would make halal meat compulsory in school canteens.

Gueant's sally drew predictable howls of protest from the left, but even some members of Sarkozy's own camp were concerned by the implication that French Muslims who might prefer halal meat were somehow "foreign."

Sarkozy has in the past won white working-class votes through right-wing populism on issues such as crime and immigration, but so far in this year's campaign seems to be struggling to be heard on any issue.

By comparison, pollsters said Hollande appears to have gained real traction from his surprise announcement of a plan to tax incomes above a threshold of a million euros a year at 75 percent.

Ifop's report alongside its poll said the Socialist had begun to widen his lead over Sarkozy following this declaration thanks to an increase in working class support. Hollande has now been caught up in another issue, however, and it is not yet clear whether it will play out in his favour or not.

According to reports – hotly denied – in German news weekly Der Spiegel, the right-wing leaders of Germany, Britain, Spain and Italy have conspired to snub Hollande's requests to meet them.

Hollande has brushed aside the report, insisting that it is French voters who will decide the result of the poll, but his lieutenants have been quick to denounce the alleged plot, hoping Sarkozy will be tarnished by association.

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