The controversy over appeals to the anti-immigrant right has largely eclipsed issues such as unemployment, the European financial crisis and declining standards of living, which, according to opinion polls, top the list of concerns among French voters. In the age of 24-hour news cycles and tweeted slogans, the campaign seemed in its final days to revolve around personalities and social tensions, such as the preservation of what Sarkozy called France’s “Christian roots” in a time of heavy Muslim immigration.
“We have taken in too many people, which has paralyzed our system of integration,” Sarkozy said in a head-to-head debate with Hollande that lasted nearly three hours Wednesday evening. “We must put a limit on the number of immigrants.”
In the wide-ranging debate, Sarkozy reiterated his pledge to cut legal immigration by half, down from about 180,000 a year, if he is reelected. Hollande’s proposal to allow noncitizens to vote in local elections, he added, would only add to an “extravagant rise in communal tensions” caused by the influx of Muslim residents.
The social tensions have combined with economic strains, particularly unemployment, to boost the rolls of far-right movements across Europe in recent months as governments are forced to impose austerity measures to bring down dangerously high deficits and public debt. Although hit with less force than such neighbors as Spain and Italy, France has seen unemployment rise to nearly 10 percent, undermining working-class families and producing resentment among voters that plays easily into the National Front’s anti-immigrant nationalism.
The attention focused on right-wing voters reflected Sarkozy’s imperative to capture a high percentage of their ballots Sunday if he is to overcome Hollande’s lead, which opinion polls put at about 53 percent to 47 percent. The business-oriented conservative won almost 70 percent of Le Pen’s voters in sailing to victory in the 2007 election, analysts noted, but he would have to do even better this time if he is to eke out a win.
“That has always been his equation,” said Thierry Vedel, a researcher at the prestigious Political Studies Institute in Paris.
Alain-Gerard Slama, a pro-Sarkozy columnist in Le Figaro newspaper, noted Wednesday that Sarkozy’s challenge is that he must persuade National Front voters to back him in the runoff without alienating centrist voters, who numbered about 9 percent in the April 22 first round. “The route is clearly narrow, but it’s the only one,” Slama wrote. “This is the bet that, in the final lap, his talent should permit him to win.”