, PARIS, Mar 12 – After an initial bid to run for re-election as self-styled saviour of the euro, Nicolas Sarkozy has launched a bid to shake up his lacklustre polling numbers with a surprise new eurosceptic stance.
With barely six weeks to go before the first round of voting, and with the French leader’s Socialist opponent Francois Hollande still frontrunner for the presidency, Sarkozy struck a strident new tone in a Sunday rally.
He threatened to pull France out of the Schengen open borders agreement and demanded the European Union adopt measures to fight cheap imports, warning that France might otherwise pass a unilateral “Buy French” law.
“I want a Europe that protects its citizens. I no longer want this savage competition,” he declared to a cheering crowd. “I have lost none of my will to act, my will to make things change, my belief in the genius of France.”
Sarkozy’s right-wing supporters were delighted, both in the large conference hall in the Paris suburbs where his speech received an ecstatic reception, and in media interviews and on Internet message forums afterwards.
But the left was quick to attack what they saw as a populist stunt.
“I felt I wasn’t listening to a French president, because a French president always wants to build Europe, push it forward. This was a conservative British prime minister,” said Hollande’s campaign manager Pierre Moscovici.
Moscovici said Britain had led opposition to the Schengen accords — under which most EU members agreed to abandon border controls between the states — and said Sarkozy’s threat was a “phenomenal step backwards”.
From the far left, presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon scorned what he dubbed a late conversion to euroscepticism from a leader who had hitherto demonstrated a “particular case of European servility”.
Melenchon boasted that his “Left Front”, a coalition of Communist and far left socialists, had pioneered the idea of disobeying EU laws when they run contrary to French national interests.
On the far right, Marine Le Pen and her National Front have gone further than Sarkozy in demanding that France quit the euro and close its borders.
Thus far in the campaign, Europe has been seen as a more difficult issue for Hollande than for Sarkozy, who has received the more or less open backing of the right-wing leaders of Germany, Spain and Britain.
Hollande, by contrast, has been warned that his vow to renegotiate Europe’s hard-won debt pact could see Paris isolated among its allies.
But commentators in the French press said Monday that Sarkozy’s new tack had confused his message, and could offend France’s allies.
“Yesterday he was accused by Nicolas Sarkozy of calling France’s word into question. This morning, Francois Hollande may look a very moderate reformer in the eyes of our neighbours,” wrote Herve Favre in La Voix du Nord.
“So, will his conservative counterparts in London, Madrid and Berlin, who snubbed Francois Hollande because he wants to renegotiate the latest EU treaty, now in turn boycott Nicolas Sarkozy?” demanded Bruno Dive in Sud-Ouest.
A first round of voting in the presidential election will take place on April 22, followed by a run-off between the top two candidates on May 6.
All recent opinion polls forecast that Hollande will win a close-fought first round and then enjoy a comfortable victory against Sarkozy in the second.