HIRSON, France – Francois Hollande reached out Tuesday to millions of supporters of a far-right candidate who have become pivotal in France's presidential race, insisting he hears their "anxiety" and "anger" over high joblessness amid bleak economic prospects in many parts of Europe.
The 57-year-old Socialist is leading conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy in polls ahead of the May 6 election finale that will determine the next leader of a nuclear-armed nation at the heart of the European Union. Their chase is on for some of the 6.4 million French — many working-class and rural — who voted for anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen in Sunday's first-round vote.
On Tuesday, Hollande exposed his strategy of hammering away on concerns about the economy — and Sarkozy's stewardship of it — and jobs, which polls show are at atop most voters' minds.
"The man who would like to be the candidate of 'real' work was the candidate of real unemployment for five years," Hollande said in a jab at Sarkozy's tenure. The unemployment rate for mainland France in the fourth quarter 2011 was 9.4 percent, close to a 12-year high.
Speaking to fans in a postindustrial northern region where Le Pen won more votes Sunday than Sarkozy, Hollande touted his party's working-class roots and urged them to help "convince" part of her electorate "that comes from the left" to support him.
"This region has suffered a lot from deindustrialization ... so it's little wonder that some votes have gone to candidacies that express anger," said Hollande. "I don't approve of this anger and this anxiety. It's a mistake ... but we should understand them."
Sarkozy, meanwhile, has played on concerns that the French national identity is under threat: he trumpets tighter border controls and France's "Christian roots." Le Pen's platform has targeted millions of French Muslims.
"These are not ideas of the right, much less the far-right," Sarkozy thundered to supporters in the town of Longjumeau, south of Paris. "These ideas are based in good sense."
Sarkozy has repeatedly said that France has held its own through economic troubles across Europe. Governments left and right have fallen across the continent in the wake of the financial and debt crises since 2008.
A key question is whether Sarkozy's inability to boost the economy and job-creation has alienated the far-right too much, despite red-meat policies for them like a ban on face-covering Muslim headscarves enacted last year.
Sunday's results are forcing Sarkozy to break with a long-held belief that politicians should court the political center — not the extremes — in the second round. Polls show that many voters who backed Le Pen on Sunday are likely to support Sarkozy on May 6 — but he'll need as many as he can get to win. A small percentage could back Hollande, and some may not vote at all.
For months, voter polls have shown Hollande with a wide — and often double-digit percentage point — lead over Sarkozy in a potential face-off. Three polls taken after Sunday's voting suggested that hasn't budged much, with the Socialist running 54-56 percent versus 46-44 percent for Sarkozy.
Aside from that, Hollande also appears to enjoy the support of most voters to his left. They mostly lined up behind Communist-backed firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon, a former Socialist who desperately wants Sarkozy out.
Corbet reported from Paris.