STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) – Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy rallied conservatives in eastern France on Wednesday, hoping to fend off a strong challenge by the far-right National Front (FN) in looming regional elections.
The FN, boosted by voter concerns about security after militant Islamists killed 130 people in Paris on Nov. 13, is leading opinion polls in two regions in the north and southeast and running head-to-head with Sarkozy’s party in the east.
Winning two regions would be a first for the FN and would boost its leader Marine Le Pen in the long run-up to the 2017 presidential poll. Taking a third out of 13 would spell serious trouble for the Socialists of unpopular President Francois Hollande – and for Sarkozy, sandwiched between the two.
Addressing about 1,000 cheering supporters in a packed hall, Sarkozy echoed Le Pen’s criticisms of the European Union, notably its drive to “erase borders” through the Schengen agreement now facing heavy criticism.
“It has succeeded in reviving the old nationalist demons that it was supposed to bar from returning,” he said, in a bid to use Le Pen’s argument against her. The FN leader was also campaigning in the region on Wednesday, in the Lorraine area.
“There are so many areas where France has retreated too far,” he continued. “Our attackers know we are vulnerable.”
Campaigning for the two-round voting on Dec. 6 and 13 was suspended after the Paris massacre. Sarkozy’s choice of Strasbourg to resume stumping for his conservative Republicans highlights the importance of the race in the eastern region.
The anti-immigration FN has grown steadily since Marine Le Pen took over in 2011 and gave a softer image to the party founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
THREE CRUCIAL REGIONS
Opinion polls tip her to win in Nord-Pas de Calais-Picardie, a region with higher-than-average unemployment, a porous border Belgian jihadists crossed to attack Paris and an eyesore camp in Calais for migrants hoping to cross to Britain.
Her niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen, elected to parliament in Paris in 2012 at the age of 22, has a strong lead in polls in the southeastern region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA).
Front deputy leader Florian Philippot is leading in opinion polls for the first round of voting in the Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine, whose capital is Strasbourg, but could still be beaten in the runoff by the Republicans candidate.
The major parties are worried about the FN. “It could run a cow as its candidate and it would get the votes,” one conservative leader admitted privately.
A leading Socialist in Strasbourg concurred: “People don’t listen to our arguments. They say they want to give them a try,” he said.
An administrative reform has merged France’s 22 metropolitan regions into 13, producing long, combined names that may yet change. Those councils are mainly responsible for regional infrastructure, transport and education.
“All the talk of these past few days, the fact that several of the killers have immigrant backgrounds and the failure of the police to follow people already marked as potential radicals are all favourable to the National Front,” political scientist Pascal Perrineau said to explain the party’s strong prospects.
“The only thing that’s slowing down this trend is that the French are looking for a statesman, someone who reassures them, knows foreign affairs and has government experience,” he said. “Marine Le Pen and her entourage are still weak here.”
Sarkozy and Hollande have that experience, but neither is taking any chances. Both have adopted some FN positions, such as Sarkozy’s opposition to halal meals for Muslims in state schools, and Hollande’s clampdown on civil rights after the Paris attacks to give police free hand to search for radical Muslims.
(Read more from Reuters here)