Presidential rivals Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande (Photo: Reuters)
French Socialist presidential frontrunner Francois Hollande toughened his stance on immigration Friday in a campaign increasingly fought on themes dear to the far right.
Hollande will face right-wing Nicolas Sarkozy in a May 6 run-off for the presidency, and both are scrambling to recruit voters who backed far-right anti-immigrant candidate Marine Le Pen in the first round.
Sarkozy has gone the furthest to reach out to the former pariah, insisting that her values are not incompatible with France's republican tradition, and vowing to secure Europe's borders and fight multiculturalism.
But first-round winner Hollande, attacked by the right for his plan to give foreign residents the vote in local elections, has come under pressure to clarify his stance on immigration and citizenship ahead of a debate next week.
Le Pen did well in Sunday's first-round among white working class voters who might once have backed the left and in a radio interview on Friday the Socialist candidate made a concession to their concerns.
"In the period of crisis we are going through, limiting economic immigration is necessary and essential," he told RTL radio.
"I also want to fight illegal immigration on the economic front. It is not right that a certain number of employers, in a cynical way, are hiring illegal migrants," he said.
Hollande repeated a pledge to ask parliament to cap the number of migrants allowed into France every year -- Sarkozy has vowed to halve the number to around 100,000 -- but warned it would never halt the flow.
"I don't think there will ever be zero immigration, there will always be legal immigration. Can we reduce the number? That's a debate," he said.
Sarkozy and his UMP party have said there will be no electoral deal with Le Pen's National Front before a parliamentary vote in June, but Sarkozy defended his outreach programme to win over her supporters.
Insisting there was no contradiction in going after centrist voters who backed Francois Bayrou in the first round and those of Le Pen, Sarkozy said people across the spectrum shared his concerns about open borders.
"Do you think those you call centrists think it's entirely normal that just anybody can come in to France?" he asked a radio interviewer.
"Do you think that giving immigrants the right to vote shocks only Le Pen voters?" he demanded.
Polls forecast Hollande will win the election comfortably, giving the left a first presidential victory in a quarter century, but the president's camp feels he is vulnerable on questions of national identity.
Sarkozy slammed Hollande on the voting rights issue, insisting that he would "defend the French way of life" against multiculturalism, raising the spectre of immigrant-run town halls imposing Muslim cultural practices.
He also mocked his rival for his abstention in the parliamentary vote which last year established a ban on the wearing of full-face religious veils such as the niqab or the burqa, which was backed by many even in his own party.
Hollande admitted on Friday that he would "maintain the law on the burqa and would apply it in the best of ways."
Le Pen won just short of 18 percent in Sunday's first round vote, not enough to join Hollande or Sarkozy in the run-off but enough to make her supporters a tempting pool of potential second-round voters.
She is not expected to endorse either of the remaining candidates before May 6, and is thought to relish the prospect that a defeat for Sarkozy would leave the centre-right in disarray before the legislative elections.
"The president-candidate is picking the pockets of my manifesto for purely electoral reasons. I fear it is pure opportunism," Le Pen said Friday, after Sarkozy's latest forays onto her territory.