PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy swung further to the right on Thursday, proposing a new licence to shoot for police pursuing suspects, in an increasingly frantic quest to woo far-right National Front voters before a decisive election runoff.
A new rise in unemployment to the highest level since September 1999 dealt another blow to the conservative Sarkozy’s effort to catch up with Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande before the May 6 second round of the presidential election.
Sarkozy is on course to become the first French president to lose a bid for re-election in more than 30 years, in part because of the sputtering economy. The number of jobless rose for the 11th straight month in March to 2.88 million, up 7.2 percent in a year.
The latest opinion poll, published 10 days before the decisive ballot, suggested Sarkozy’s strategy of courting the 6.4 million electors who voted for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in last Sunday’s first round was making scant impact.
The TNS-Sofres poll showed Hollande holding a 10-point lead with 55 percent of voting intentions.
Hollande and Sarkozy face each other in the run-off after placing first and second in the first round on Sunday.
Le Pen, who has become a potential kingmaker after scoring 17.9 percent, sought to extract concessions from Sarkozy before she announces her position on the runoff, challenging him not to block her party’s way in parliamentary elections.
Both finalists have courted Le Pen’s voters but Sarkozy has made the most direct overtures, saying he respected their vote for a party which has long been stigmatised.
Le Pen has promised to spell out her view at the National Front’s traditional “Joan of Arc” rally on May 1, and she urged Sarkozy to make his position clearer concerning parliamentary polls in June.
Building on her record support, the National Front hopes to win its first seats in parliament since 1986, when an experiment with proportional representation gave it 35 deputies.
“In a runoff between the National Front and a Socialist, would the UMP and the president prefer to have one of my deputies or a Socialist elected?” Le Pen asked, referring to Sarkozy’s centre-right Union for a Popular Movement party.
“I still don’t have an answer to that question. I‘m waiting,” she said, when asked whom she would endorse. “How I express myself will depend on the response.”
Hollande, who said he understands voters’ exasperation at high unemployment and a widening gap between rich and poor, has blamed Sarkozy for fostering the far right by aping its aggressive stance on immigration and national identity.
Sarkozy took up another Le Pen proposal on Thursday, calling for a change in the law to allow policemen on duty who open fire on suspects to be presumed to have acted in “legitimate self-defence” unless proven otherwise.
He made the call after hundreds of officers demonstrated in police cars on the central Champs-Elysees avenue in support of a colleague who shot dead an armed fugitive in a Paris suburb and was placed under judicial investigation for suspected murder.
“In a state with the rule of law, we cannot put on the same level a policeman doing his job and a lawbreaker doing his job,” he told frenzied supporters, who chanted “We are going to win!”.
Opinion polls show supporters of Sarkozy’s centre-right UMP party favour a deal with Le Pen, but the president has ruled out any agreement which would give the far-right ministerial positions or help them win seats at June’s legislative election.
Asked about Le Pen’s challenge, Sarkozy said the UMP would have its own candidates in each constituency, so the choice between the National Front and a Socialist would not arise.
Were it to repeat Sunday’s performance in the parliamentary vote, the National Front could split the right-wing vote in many constituencies, potentially decimating Sarkozy’s UMP party.
If elected, Hollande has pledged to slap higher taxes on large corporations and the rich, include growth measures in a German-inspired budget pact imposing austerity across Europe, and hire 60,000 new teachers.
The prospect of Hollande winning power has sent jitters through financial markets, even though the 57-year-old has insisted he is committed to balancing France’s budget by 2017.
The British magazine The Economist, which made waves in France by accusing both candidates of being “in denial” about the debt crisis and the need for economic reform, endorsed Sarkozy on Thursday, calling Hollande “rather dangerous”.
“A French president so hostile to change would undermine Europe’s willingness to pursue the painful reforms it must eventually embrace for the euro to survive. That makes him a rather dangerous man,” it said in an editorial.
Sarkozy, whose flashy style has alienated many voters, needs the support of around 80 percent of Le Pen’s first round voters to win. But the TNS-Sofres survey found only 51 percent of her backers would make the switch, down from 70 percent in 2007 when Sarkozy’s tough immigration line helped him to the presidency.
Senior aides have suggested Le Pen is highly unlikely to endorse either candidate because she hopes to profit from an implosion of the mainstream right if Sarkozy is defeated.
In an open letter to both candidates, Le Pen said she was not the owner of her first round votes and it was illegitimate that her supporters were being branded as “xenophobes”.
Sarkozy, treading a fine line between alienating centrists and winning over Le Pen’s vote, said he was certain that her supporters did not endorse extremist views and Le Pen herself had not displayed xenophobia.
In a setback to Sarkozy, centrist candidate Francois Bayrou, who came fifth with 9.1 percent, accused the president of being “absurd and offensive” in comparing his voters with those of Le Pen and called on Wednesday for a more civil campaign.
However, former centrist president Valery Giscard d‘Estaing endorsed Sarkozy on Thursday, saying Hollande would not be able to change the tax-and-spend ways of the Socialist party which would expose France to “international speculation”.
Additional reporting by Brian Love and Daniel Flynn; Editing by Peter Graff