Sarkozy and Hollande battle for Le Pen voters
Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande battle for voters who cast their ballots for Marine Le Pen in the first round of France's presidential election. Reuters

A little more than a week before the decisive second round of France’s presidential election, front-runner Francois Hollande has addressed one of the key issues on the voters’ minds: immigration.

The Socialist Hollande -- who narrowly beat incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in the first round of the election, 28.6 percent to 27.2 percent -- is apparently seeking to appeal to Frenchmen and -women who gave extreme right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen a historic 17.9 percent share of the vote in that round.

Sarkozy has already made concessions to the far-right National Front, or FN, party by declaring that France has “too many foreigners” and that, if re-elected, he will significantly cut legal immigration and crackdown on illegal migrants. Now Hollande has also tried to co-opt such a stance, citing that immigration must be reduced during a time of economic malaise and high unemployment in France.

In a period of crisis, which we are experiencing, limiting economic immigration is necessary and essential, Hollande said during a television appearance on Thursday.

Given the fact that Le Pen’s FN attracted more than one of six French voters, even the leftist Hollande has expressed his sympathy for this anti-immigration stance, repeatedly asserting that the FN’s strong showing reflected anger and frustration among the populace, as opposed to adherence to a virulent ideology.

Among other issues, Le Pen’s party strongly advocates giving French citizens preference in jobs, housing, and welfare benefits, while punishing companies that employ illegal immigrants. With unemployment running at almost 10 percent, her program has much support among the public.

However, Hollande has to be careful not to alienate the Socialists and the far left – his core supporters. As a result, Hollande uses less strident language than Sarkozy does with regard to immigration.

On Friday, Hollande told RTL radio that he would order parliament to establish an annual quota for non-European Union immigrants.

There will always be legal immigration. Can the number be reduced? That's the debate, Hollande said. In any case, the numbers will be managed.

Sarkozy has also defended his anti-immigration stance, suggesting it is actually a mainstream view, not the sole preserve of the far right.

Do you think those whom you call centrists think it is perfectly normal that everyone can come into France, that there is no immigration problem, that the integration system works? Sarkozy asked rhetorically on RTL radio. Do you think giving immigrants the right to vote is something that only shocks the voters of Marine Le Pen?

Sarkozy’s senior adviser, Henri Guaino, told Radio Classique that immigration is a concern across the political spectrum.

[Sarkozy’s] plan is above all to put borders at the heart of politics. This isn't a far-right problem -- it's not even a problem of the right, Guaino said. It's a central issue from which all other problems in Europe and France ensue.

In yet another concession to the far right, Hollande agreed to enforce the government’s ban on Muslim head and face coverings, including the burqa and niqab. Sarkozy supported this law's passage, saying, among other things, that such accoutrements were tantamount to a security risk. (Hollande abstained when the face-covering bill was put to a vote in parliament in 2010.)

Many French Muslims -- who number about 3.57 million, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life -- vehemently opposed the ban.

There are also other topics governing the election aside from immigration and Islam.

Hollande could also appeal to Le Pen’s followers through his message on the economy since the Socialist candidate has spoken of easing austerity, focusing on jobs growth, and raising taxes on millionaires, while espousing a generally anti-euro position (stances shared by many on the far right).

Now, ahead of the May 6 runoff, the key to both Hollande’s and Sarkozy’s political futures lies with how much of the Le Pen constituency they can win over -- making Marine a potential kingmaker.

According to a Harris Interactive survey published on Friday, almost one-third (31 percent) of Le Pen voters said they would abstain from voting in the second round, while almost one-half (48 percent) said they would vote for Sarkozy and about one-fifth (21 percent) said they would vote for Hollande.

Given that Sarkozy finished only about 1.4 percent behind Hollande in the first round, the support from a significant portion of the far right could conceivably hand Sarkozy a victory -- even if most polls have written off Sarkozy’s chances.

Like Hollande, Sarkozy has to delicately handle the Le Pen matter.

Although Sarkozy has explicitly said he will not seek to form an alliance with Le Pen and has ruled out giving any cabinet positions to FN members should he win, he has expressed sympathy for the fears and concerns of those who voted for Le Pen.

We need to speak to the 18 percent who voted for Marine Le Pen, Sarkozy said. But I don't want ministers from the FN. I've never wanted that. The 18 percent who voted FN don't belong to me, but it's my duty to address them.

Complicating matters is that Le Pen has so far said she will not endorse either Sarkozy or Hollande, suggesting that if enough FN supporters boycott the second round, Sarkozy would likely lose.

However, Douglas Yates, assistant professor of political science at the American University of Paris and professor at the American Graduate School in Paris, said he believes the Le Pen voters will indeed vote for Sarkozy in the final round of the election and that opinion polls have been inaccurate.

“The polls have not been getting the FN vote right,” Yates said. “They did not properly predict the FN score in the first round. The pollsters have asked FN voters if they would vote in the second round. Most said they would not. I do not believe them.”

Yates said Le Pen will be the key to Sarkozy’s political future -- even if she does not officially endorse him, which is virtually guaranteed. “The real question is whether or not Marine will convince [her supporters] to vote against Sarkozy,” he said.

“Her current strategy is to implode Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement [UMP] party. It appears that she would rather see Sarkozy lose and his party collapse -- which would leave her and the FN as the sole opposition bloc on the Right -- than she would see her supporters vote against the Left. If she convinces her supporters to attack Sarkozy and the UMP, then Hollande will win. Otherwise, Sarkozy will get re-elected. My bet is the final tally will be 51-49, something much closer than the predictions of the pollsters.”

As for Hollande, Yates said he thinks that for him to appeal to the far right, the Socialist would have to avoid scaring them with leftist rhetoric. “He has taken great pains to avoid sending any clear messages that he is from the political Left,” he noted.

“His strategy has been to occupy the Center, Yates said. This is what he did in the Socialist primaries, enabling him to eliminate his more progressive Socialist rivals. This is also what he did in the first round of the presidential elections, once again allowing him to outperform his more progressive Green and Communist rivals on the Left. Now he is standing in the Center and counting on everyone to his Left voting for him, or at least, voting against Sarkozy.”

And what of Marine Le Pen, who is only 42 years old and has already surpassed the popularity of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of FN?

“Marine Le Pen has managed to raise her father's party from the dead,” Yates said. “The FN is presently expected to win many seats in the upcoming legislative elections. She is already a regional councilwoman, and with a solid voting bloc in the National Assembly, she could play the role of a ‘spoiler.’”

Le Pen would likely not join any government of the left or right, Yates noted. However, she is positioning herself and her party to play the role of parliamentary opposition.

“If she can do this, Yates said, then she will strengthen her hand for the next presidential election.”