PARIS - President Nicolas Sarkozy starkly laid out his path to reelection Monday: He will be plunging deep into far-right territory to hunt the votes he needs to beat Socialist challenger Francois Hollande in the runoff.
A day after Hollande won a slim upper hand in the first round of voting, Sarkozy candidly courted voters of the far-right National Front whose candidate, Marine Le Pen, placed a solid third. She gave the party its highest-ever score, nearly 18 percent, the biggest surprise of Sunday’s first-round vote.
Le Pen and her anti-immigration party want to pull France out of the euro currency, reinstate border controls, crack down on immigrants, and halt what she calls the Islamization of France.
“The word ‘protectionism’ isn’t a dirty word,’’ Sarkozy said Monday during a rousing speech in Saint-Cyr-Sur-Loire, near Tours, southwest of Paris.
Protecting the French identity, French civilization, French borders, French workers, French youth, and French retirees were all on Sarkozy’s agenda - and all are themes dear to the National Front.
Sarkozy and Hollande, both 57, used their first postelection speeches to lure far-right voters to their respective camps ahead of the May 6 final round. But Hollande did so more softly.
The math is brutal. Hollande won 28.6 percent of Sunday’s vote, Sarkozy won 27.2 percent, and both need votes from Le Pen’s far right to climb over 50 percent - but Sarkozy needs them more.
Hollande is expected to get many of the backers of far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who won 11 percent. The 9 percent who voted for centrist candidate Francois Bayrou are also in play.
Sarkozy named the National Front, and in a bid to destigmatize those who vote for the far-right party, said he respects them.
On the left, some “hold their noses,’’ he said. “I want to say that we have heard them [the far right] and know how to respond with precise commitments.’’
The commitment he clearly named was tightening French borders - with or without other European countries - to keep them from becoming a “sieve’’ for immigrants and others.
“Europe must change so as not to be perceived as a threat but as a protection,’’ he said.
For his part, Hollande said some voters cast ballots for Le Pen because they feel the system has left them behind.
“We have to look further for voters,’’ Hollande said in a speech in the western region of Brittany. “Women and men who don’t know where to go . . . go toward the extreme.’’
Both candidates warned about the spread of populism around Europe - what Sarkozy called a “crisis vote’’ by those hurt by the effects of the debt crisis and left behind in a globalized world.
Sarkozy even waved the red flag of fear. “If we change nothing, if we don’t agree on new rules, we risk taking the tragic path of the 1930s,’’ he said, referring to the rise of Nazism.
If Hollande wins the runoff, he will become France’s first Socialist president since Francois Mitterrand left office in 1995. Polls show him slightly ahead in a matchup with Sarkozy.