May Day rallies become another battlefield for French election rivals
French presidential rivals Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande have clashed over staging rival workers' rallies in Paris as they battle for the soul of France's May Day celebrations and rush to court crucial far-right voters before next week's final vote.
France's Labour Day parades on 1 May usually see trade unionists and the left march through major cities to mark the struggle for workers' rights. For the far right, 1 May has also become the day on which Marine Le Pen's Front National (FN) commemorates the party's adopted national symbol, Joan of Arc, in central Paris. Not to be outdone, the rightwing President Sarkozy, fighting for his political survival after losing to the Socialist Hollande in the first round of the presidential election, has organised his own open-air rally on 1 May near the Eiffel tower.
It is the latest round in an ongoing battle for the best television images of cheering crowds with banners, but also part of Sarkozy's strategy to attack what he deems a lazy culture of benefits and the left's 35-hour week versus what he promotes as honest hard work.
Sarkozy used the street-rally row to position himself as the defender of "real" French workers against those he styles as people on state handouts, particularly foreigners, portrayed as the recipients of undeserved mollycoddling from the French state. In a speech outside Paris on Tuesday, he said: "Some earn more by not working than others do by working."
Amid record unemployment and a deepening economic crisis, the fear of losing a job or never finding one is one of French voters' most potent anxieties. The left accused Sarkozy of "indecency" for trying to hijack Labour Day and turn parts of French society against each other. The Socialist Jean-Marc Ayrault said Sarkozy's record had been dire on jobs, with a million more unemployed since he took office, 8.5 million living below the poverty line and a level of youth unemployment of 20%.
Both Sarkozy and Hollande launched offensives to win over the unprecedented 6.4 million voters who chose the FN's Marine Le Pen in the first-round presidential vote. Le Pen came third in the race and her voters now hold the balance as the final two candidates face a runoff on 6 May. It is the far-right voters who could decide the election result. Not all will automatically transfer to Sarkozy and many could abstain.
In a determinedly rightwing speech in Longjumeau, outside Paris, Sarkozy said he understood the suffering of FN voters and set out his key themes: security, immigration and defending borders against foreigners. He linked the French public deficit and the danger of too many immigrants coming to France just to claim generous benefits. A plank of Sarkozy's strategy is to attack Hollande over Socialist proposals to give foreigners resident in France the right to vote in local municipal elections. Sarkozy also stressed the importance of the Christian heritage of France and of defending family values.
Hollande, the frontrunner, has a delicate task of reaching out to the FN's protest vote while not alienating his core left and centrist voters. He deliberately took to the campaign trail in rural Picardie in the north, where Le Pen took over a quarter of the vote. "It's up to me to convince the voters of the Front National," he told Libération. He explained Le Pen's score in terms of "a suffering electorate of office workers, artisans and blue-collar workers who are really feeling abandoned" as well as farmers struggling to make ends meet. He said those voters, some of whom came from the left, had wanted to punish not just Sarkozy but also the political system, Europe and globalisation.Resources: May Day rallies become another battlefield for French election rivals
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