French President Nicolas Sarkozy hunted far-right votes yesterday after losing to Socialist Francois Hollande in a first-round vote that saw a shock breakthrough by the anti-immigrant National Front (FN).
The right-wing incumbent moved quickly to woo the 18 percent of voters who backed the FN’s Marine Le Pen, saying they deserved an answer to their concerns, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel called her showing “alarming.”
Hollande and Sarkozy are to face each other in a run-off on May 6 after Sunday’s first round saw the Socialist beat the incumbent by a vote of 28.63 to 27.18 percent, according to near-complete official results.
Hollande’s victory cemented his position as the clear leader in the race, dealing a blow to Sarkozy’s hopes of gaining enough momentum from a first-round win to defy expectations and return to office.
However, it was the showing of populist nationalist flagbearer Le Pen that shook up the race, setting up her voters as potential kingmakers.
“We must respect the voters’ will, it is our duty to listen,” Sarkozy told journalists as he prepared to campaign yesterday in central France. “There was this crisis vote that doubled from one election to another, an answer must be given.”
Le Pen’s score on Sunday was nearly double the 10.4 percent her father, Jean-Marie, took as the FN candidate in the 2007 first round.
Hollande told reporters that the vote reflected anger in the country and that he would also listen to far-right supporters.
“Nicolas Sarkozy is to blame for the far-right’s high level,” he said after meeting aides in Paris before heading to Brittany to campaign. “There are voters who may have been led to this through anger. That is what I want to hear.”
Polls show most far-right supporters prefer Sarkozy, but up to a quarter — mainly working-class voters attracted by Le Pen’s protectionist trade policies — could switch to Hollande.
Le Pen’s high score stunned observers and she told supporters after the results that “the battle of France has just begun” and “nothing will be as it was before.”
In the first foreign reaction to the result, Merkel’s deputy spokesman Georg Streiter told reporters: “This high score [for Le Pen] is alarming, but I expect it will be ironed out in the second round.”
Sarkozy, who had already swung to the right in the campaign, had brandished his right-wing credentials in his first post-results speech on Sunday.
“These anxieties, this suffering, I know them, I understand them,” Sarkozy said. “They are about respecting our borders, the determined fight against job relocation, controlling immigration, putting value on work, on security.”