French presidential candidates make final appeals

Posted in Europe | 20-Apr-07 | Author: Katrin Bennhold| Source: International Herald Tribune

Nicolas Sarkozy.

TOULOUSE: The four leading candidates for the French presidency held their last major campaign rallies Thursday as the most hotly contested election in decades drew to a close.

In the southwest city of Toulouse, Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate, addressed about 17,000 supporters three days before the first round, vowing to usher in a 21st century-style socialism and exhorting voters to propel her into the runoff.

She called for a "massive mobilization" to avoid a repeat of the party's 2002 humiliation when the Socialists were eliminated in the first round by Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front.

Lashing out at her main rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, she declared to wild cheers: "We will not go down on our knees before George Bush," adding that "in Europe we will defend the emergence of a multipolar world."

Without naming Sarkozy, she said, "His program is him, my program is you."

Sarkozy, the conservative front-runner, chose the southern port city of Marseille for his last major speech, before a crowd of about 20,000 people. The former interior minister from the Union for a Popular Movement has been leading opinion polls for months.

His speech echoed the themes of security and traditional values that have marked his campaign.

"What is important to me is to talk to the France that no one has spoken to. The France that doesn't burn cars and doesn't block trains, to the France that has no stock options nor golden parachutes and that works hard."

Appealing to voters on the far right, he declared, "I want to convince Jean-Marie Le Pen's voters to come back into the realm of the republic because together we will change things.

"Their votes will be useful, their cry will be heard, their suffering will be considered. But my France is not Mr. Le Pen's" he said, adding, "It is not exclusion."

"Once I used the word 'thugs' in response to a question from a woman living in Argenteuil, who named those who made life impossible in her neighborhood and forced her to live in fear," he said, invoking one of his most controversial statements as interior minister. "I have been criticized for that. It is contemptuous of youth to use euphemisms under the pretext that they are unable to face reality."

In the last days of the campaign, Royal has hammered home her message that she is best equipped to change France but has refused to predict whether she will make it into the May 6 runoff.

Royal met with six union officials representing Airbus workers when she arrived Thursday in Toulouse, the home of the troubled French aeronautics industry. She repeated pledges to suspend the thousands of layoffs expected at the struggling airplane manufacturer and to review the management structure under which its parent company, EADS, is run if she is elected.

While Royal has registered some poll gains in recent days, Sarkozy is so certain of a run-off slot that he has started to lay the groundwork for the next stage, even allowing a potential choice for prime minister, François Fillon, to announce what their government's first measures would be - relaxing the 35-hour work week, enforcing minimum service during strikes, and toughening prison sentences for repeat offenders, among other things.

Sarkozy's main concern as the campaign closes appears to be not Royal but François Bayrou, a centrist whose unexpected rise in opinion polls has destabilized France's usual left-right divide. Although Bayrou has been running third in opinion polls, some surveys predict that if he makes it into the second round, he would beat Sarkozy or Royal. On Wednesday, he drew 17,000 supporters to Paris's main sports arena.

At his rally in Pau, southwest France, a combative Bayrou lashed out at the newspaper Le Monde for a front-page editorial Thursday calling on voters to vote for Sarkozy and Royal on Sunday so that there would be a clear left-right choice in the May 6 run-off.

"How dare you say we should suppress the first round of the presidential election and go straight to the second round," Bayrou declared.

He said that the country was going through its worst crisis since the end of World War II and that the two main parties had led France to "the abyss."

A crowd estimated at 6,500 repeatedly erupted in cheers as Bayrou pledged to restore the independence of the judiciary, demand accountability for public spending, reconcile France with Europe and create jobs.

Bayrou has been attacked from the right for shifting leftward and by the left as "a variant of the right." Commentators have warned that, if elected, he may be unable to obtain a majority in parliamentary elections in June.

He is viewed as sufficiently subversive by established politicians that even some members of his own party, the Union for French Democracy, have thrown their support to Sarkozy, most recently former President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.

But Bayrou's message that he is the only candidate who can unite a fractured France has clearly been heard by voters, with 19 percent saying they would support him in the most recent opinion poll. Sarkozy stood at 28 percent and Royal at 25 percent in the poll, carried out by TNS Sofres this week and published Thursday.

Le Pen, the leader of the extreme-right National Front, stunned France five years ago by defeating the Socialist candidate, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, in the first round of the presidential election. His rating in the polls has increased as this election nears; the TNS Sofres poll credits him with 14 percent.

Le Pen maintains that he will breeze into the second round again, a prospect that has mesmerized the French over the last two weeks even though poll figures indicate that this is unlikely.

Meg Bortin contributed from Pau and Maia de la Baume from Marseille.