PARIS (Reuters) - A resurgent French far-right is playing into the hands of Socialist presidential candidate Francois Hollande, who is cruising into Sunday’s runoff vote freed of having to make concessions to a weakened hard left.
Hollande no longer needs to risk losing centrist votes by appealing to hard-left voters after their candidate faded in the first round. By contrast, a campaign by incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy to win back conservative voters after a strong far-right showing seems to be failing.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s surprise 17.9 percent score in the first-round on April 22 seemed to throw Hollande’s lead over Sarkozy into question, as most Le Pen backers had been expected to vote conservative in a runoff.
Yet a week on, Sarkozy looks no better off in opinion polls and may have put off many centre-ground voters with his tough talk about immigration and borders so clearly aimed at the far right that it upset many in his own camp.
Hollande, meanwhile, has plodded on with the same tone and the same platform he set out in January.
Humbled by his 11 percent first round score - well below the 14-17 percent he was polling a month ago - leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon has gone from clenched-fist tirades to asking Hollande politely not to overlook issues such as the minimum wage.
“Hollande is much less encumbered by his extreme left than Sarkozy is by his extreme right,” said political scientist Pascal Perrineau. “Hollande doesn’t need to send messages to his extreme wing, while Sarkozy is doomed if he doesn’t.”
With Hollande’s campaign anchoring left-wing and centrist voters, his backers in the business community hope the fading of the far-left will free him to nudge forward structural economic reforms his aides say he is privately keen to carry out.
“If Hollande wins with a big margin he won’t need to pick ministers who are tokens for the extreme left,” said investment banker Matthieu Pigasse, who is close to senior Socialists and was tutored by Hollande in economics years ago.
Pigasse, now CEO of Lazard France and co-owner of the daily newspaper Le Monde, said he believed Hollande would be as much of a reformer as Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who sold state-owned firms and trimmed taxes in his 1997-2002 term.
“I am not part of the campaign team so I don’t know what’s inside his boxes, but I am convinced he wants change. He’s being prudent in what he says but paradoxically the French left has always reformed more than the right,” he said. “The labor market needs more flexibility and I think Hollande can do it.”
Latest polls give Hollande a comfortable 6-10 point lead over Sarkozy before Wednesday’s sole television debate.
An OpinionWay-Fiducial survey found 49 percent of voters feel Sarkozy’s campaign was leaning too far to the right. Among centrists, 60 percent felt Sarkozy had tilted too far and 56 percent judged Hollande’s campaign to be spot on.
“The very right-wing position adopted by the president to seduce National Front voters seems to have been totally counter-productive,” said opinion pollster Gael Sliman of the BVA institute. He said Le Pen voters seemed annoyed he was using “such a thick line to fish them”.
First round National Front voters seem to be splitting in three ways for the runoff. Around half will opt for Sarkozy, but many seem set on abstaining or even voting for Hollande.
While Sarkozy hammered home the need for strong frontiers and a clear national identity, using the word “border” dozens of times in a speech to supporters in southern France on Sunday, Hollande told a rally in Paris he would not stoop to such tactics to chase National Front votes.
“I am not going for flattery or exaggerated seduction. I am about coherence and consistency, that’s what sets me apart in this campaign,” Hollande said as even some conservatives voiced unease at Sarkozy’s embracing of Le Pen’s rhetoric.
A self-styled “Mr. Normal” who sees his calm temperament as a selling point contrasted to Sarkozy’s hot-bloodedness, Hollande was the unexpected Socialist contender after a sex scandal ended former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s chances of running.
He lacks Strauss-Kahn’s intellectual sparkle and Sarkozy’s verbal fireworks, but has held steadily to his ideas of higher taxes to cut the budget deficit and a bigger European focus on economic growth as the president has veered right on immigration and Europe.
Financial markets fretted at first about Melenchon’s influence, particularly after Hollande made a surprise proposal of a 75 percent tax on income over 1 million euros ($1.33 million). However, the first round result may have created more room for Hollande to appoint market-friendly ministers.
Hollande had been considered likely to pick Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry as prime minister to keep hard-left voters happy. Many now see him opting for Jean-Marc Ayrault, a German-speaking moderate who has worked on Hollande’s European agenda, or Michel Sapin, his business-friendly economic adviser.
“The fact that Melenchon didn’t get the blowaway score he expected leaves much more freedom of choice,” a member of Hollande’s team told the daily Liberation, asked about Ayrault.
The Left Front coalition headed by Melenchon may still do well in parliamentary elections on June 10 and 17 but analysts doubt Hollande would end up dependent on it for a majority.
If Sarkozy loses, the mainstream right may be in such disarray that Hollande could have a window of opportunity to pass reform legislation.
“If he wants to get reforms done he needs to move as fast as possible to take advantage of the few months the conservatives will be mired in infighting,” said an influential French business chief. “He’s basically got the summer to play with.” ($1 = 0.7542 euros)
Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry and Alexandria Sage; editing by David Stamp