PARIS Nicolas Sarkozy has targeted Roma migrants in a bid to court far-right voters who helped bring him to power, apparently calculating law and order could help secure a re-election in 2012 threatened by unpopular pension reform and budget cuts.
The strategy may have tainted France's image abroad but analysts say it taps into a widespread unease over petty crime, pickpockets and aggressive begging, and shows Sarkozy sees National Front voters as a potential reservoir of support even as other voters desert him.
Sarkozy, whose "tough cop" credentials helped him to power in 2007, can argue that an electoral breakthrough by Sweden's anti-immigrant party last weekend illustrates the danger that mainstream leaders face if they fumble on law and order.
As 2012 elections loom larger in French political life, the expulsions of Roma migrants and demolition of illegal campsites appear to enjoy the backing of a majority of French voters, according to an August 25 survey by the CSA polling agency.
He also pledged after a Casino robbery and shootout in July that recently naturalised immigrants who attacked police would be stripped of citizenship.
Such hardline policies help Sarkozy bolster a popularity rating that is currently "nothing short of alarming" in the words of Francois Miquet-Marty, director at pollster Viavoice.
"It's much better ground for him than economic issues, given the difficulty the population senses on the latter front at the moment," said Bruno Jeanbart, analyst at OpinionWay pollsters.
"This is an issue that benefits the president more than the opposition. It also probably delivers a number of signals to his electorate and notably to voters who came from the National Front to vote for him in 2007."
It also suggests the Elysee believes the economy will provide little good news between now and polling day, given the state of the nation's finances.
Voters are unhappy about his plans to raise the retirement age and spending cuts designed to make good on Sarkozy's pledge to slash France's bloated public deficit by 2013.
He will find it hard to backtrack on deficit-reduction commitments, and the cost-cuts needed to make good, without alarming financial markets, where France wants to maintain a top-notch credit rating that helps it to service its debt relatively cheaply.
He has already had to face down massive street protests over his pension reform plans and faces more this week before moving on to present a cost-cutting budget bill that will boost the government's tax take by 10 billion euros.
Nor can Sarkozy count as surely as before on the disarray among his main political opponents.
His Socialist adversaries appear more serious about bridging internal rifts to offer a credible alternative to Sarkozy for presidential elections in the first half of 2012.
And to his right, the National Front is set for a youthful change of leadership. Marine Le Pen, 42, is preparing to take over the helm from her father Jean-Marie, an 82-year-old ex-paratrooper who stunned France when he made it to the presidential runoff in 2002.
One survey published in mid-September by the Ipsos polling agency showed Sarkozy's popularity among National Front voters jumped by 20 points in September, to 52 from 32 percent, after the security crackdown. Other polls are less clear-cut.
It's electorate has played the kingmaker role in French politics as recently as 2002, when Le Pen senior knocked Socialist Lionel Jospin out of the race, ensuring an overwhelming run-off victory for conservative Jacques Chirac.
However, if Sarkozy courts the National Front too strongly he risks losing moderate voters in the mainstream centre-right, who account for around 15 percent of the electorate.
Another risk is that the interest of National Front voters will wane as fast as it waxed if they sense that Sarkozy's strategy is more words than action, said Jean-Yves Camus, a political scientist who specialises in the far-right.
"When voting day arrives, National Front voters will think more in terms of action than announcements and on that count he has not done that much," said Camus.
(Additional reporting by Yann Le Guernigou and Gerard Bon; Editing by Jon Boyle)