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In French Election, Candidates Chase Far-Right Votes

A campaign poster for French President Nicolas Sarkozy stands next to a torn poster of National Front candidate Marine Le Pen in northern France. Sarkozy needs Le Pen's far-right voters if he is to win the runoff election on Sunday.
Philippe Huguen
AFP/Getty Images
A campaign poster for French President Nicolas Sarkozy stands next to a torn poster of National Front candidate Marine Le Pen in northern France. Sarkozy needs Le Pen's far-right voters if he is to win the runoff election on Sunday.

President Nicolas Sarkozy is fighting desperately to hold on to his job with five days to go until the French presidential runoff against socialist rival Francois Hollande.

Both candidates have been trying to appeal to supporters of France's far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who came in third place in the first round of balloting held last month. Sarkozy, from the center-right, finished in second place, with Socialist candidate Francois Hollande taking first with nearly 29 percent of the vote.

While Le Pen's third-place finish ended her run, it was the far right's highest score ever in a presidential election.

Big Gains For Far Right

The National Front party leader made big gains in many French regions. Her supporters are considered to be largely working class or agrarian. That makes the winegrowing region of Burgundy prime Le Pen territory.

In the tiny village of Chambolle Musigny, a table of vintners toast their centuries-old way of life and Le Pen's success. With almost 20 percent of the vote, she did nearly twice as well as her father did in 2002 when he shocked the nation by making it into the second-round runoff.

Winegrower Remy Boursot says there are two main reasons why more people are voting Le Pen.

"Europe and immigration. As a winegrower, it's Europe that dictates my life. We've lost our sovereignty, and this has killed our small businesses and artisans. We have to get out of the euro currency. And with unemployment on the rise, we hardly need mass immigration," said Boursot. "Yes, people are waking up."

Francois Fabin, a day laborer who picks Boursot's grapes, puts it more bluntly.

"If you go to the hospital in the town of Dijon, you see all the African women who come here to have their babies," said Fabin. "We're working to pay for the rest of the world. We can't do it anymore, and the National Front says stop!"

Despite the tranquil beauty of Burgundy's stone villages and church spires, and the orderliness of neat rows of vines stitched across its hillsides, all is not well here. This presidential election has laid bare deep French fears over issues such as globalization, economic austerity measures and national identity.

In the blue-collar Burgundy town of Montbard, a metal works factory supplies parts for the powerful French nuclear industry. With jobs to be had and virtually no foreigners, local newspaper editor David Regazzoni says he can't figure out why the people of Montbard are increasingly voting for the far right.

"Perhaps they are afraid. Afraid to lose what they have — to lose their job, they are afraid by Europe, they are afraid of globalization, even in rural country like this," Regazzoni said.

Frederic Ravenet, a local Socialist official, says the far right's vote here is no threat yet — but their arguments worry him.

"Their talk is very aggressive toward foreigners, the homeless, anyone living at the margins of society. And I think hiding behind this kind of a debate is not very healthy for democracy," Ravenet said.

Betting On The Far Right

Hollande, the favorite, called the National Front's vote results an expression of "social anger."

All across Burgundy, Socialist Party volunteers have been going door to door in an attempt to bring a few of Le Pen's 6 million disgruntled voters back to the mainstream.

Sarkozy desperately needs Le Pen's voters if he is to beat Hollande, and at a recent rally in the Burgundy capital of Dijon, he went after them. But the president's heightened right-wing rhetoric on immigration and security has made some in his center-right party uncomfortable.

Nonna Mayer, a specialist on the far right, says Sarkozy is taking a gamble.

"It's a very dangerous bet, because by doing that, he's going to lose the center-right voters who are kind of shocked by the tone of his campaign. And it won't necessarily win Marine Le Pen voters, because as her father used to say, 'The voters would prefer the original to the copy,' And also, in a way it legitimizes the positions of Marine Le Pen," Mayer said.

In a recent television interview, Le Pen said both Sarkozy and Hollande had missed the point, saying, "My supporters didn't cast their votes out of anger and suffering. They voted to join me."

At a May Day rally in Paris Tuesday, Le Pen said she could not endorse a candidate and would cast a blank ballot. She added her supporters could make their own choices.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.