PARIS – Nicolas Sarkozy is parroting French far right leader Marine Le Pen and embracing her anti-immigrant electorate in a desperate bid for a second term as president. Yet Le Pen seems determined to see Sarkozy fail.
Le Pen, who rails against what she calls the "Islamization" of France, came in a strong third place in the first round of France's presidential elections Sunday, and could play the kingmaker for the decisive second round May 6.
Logic would suggest Le Pen should endorse the conservative Sarkozy, a fellow critic of the left who has carried Le Pen's ideas into mainstream discourse — and policy.
But Le Pen has shown no signs of backing Sarkozy. Instead, she seems to be hoping that Socialist Francois Hollande wins the presidency, Sarkozy's conservative UMP party crumbles in disarray, and Le Pen herself emerges as the face of the French opposition.
"She is doing the maximum to keep Sarkozy from winning," said Nonna Mayer of the Center for European Studies at the Institute for Political Sciences in Paris. "She wants the UMP to explode. Her idea is to show her force and ... represent the right."
Le Pen's immediate sights are set on parliamentary elections in June, where she hopes her National Front party will win seats for the first time since 1986 and build alliances with the harder right members of the UMP.
Le Pen's ready smile and soft blond highlights present the perfect public face for a party that is trying to "de-demonize" itself after decades under party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine's firebrand father, repeatedly convicted for racism and anti-Semitism.
Marine Le Pen has focused her ire on France's millions of Muslims, stoking fear about halal meat and comparing Muslims who pray on the streets for lack of mosque space to Nazi occupiers. She wants France to abandon the euro currency and return to the franc, and to drastically reduce the number of immigrants to 10,000 a year.
Sarkozy, too, wants to slash the number of immigrants, and he championed a law banning Islamic face veils from the street, saying they run counter to French values. He speaks regularly of the French identity, seen as code for the traditional white, Catholic heartland.
Le Pen says she will announce May 1 whether she is endorsing anyone for the presidential runoff. Polls suggest only about half of Le Pen's voters would support Sarkozy in the second round, with the others either abstaining or voting for Hollande.
"Sarkozy has lost. He won't be re-elected," Le Pen said in an interview last week with The Associated Press.
Her party's No. 2, Louis Aliot, said he would cast a blank ballot, because Sarkozy has "insulted" the National Front. Speaking on France-Inter radio, Aliot predicted a "re-making" of the French right after the presidential election.
Le Pen's party may campaign for parliamentary elections under a new name, Mayer said, noting that the National Front remains scarred by its own past fractures. Le Pen "wants to change the image of the party to arrive in power herself," Mayer said.
Le Pen has asked the UMP leadership to announce publicly whether it will endorse her candidates or Socialist ones in constituencies where a far right and leftist candidate face off in the parliamentary elections.
"From now on, nothing will be like it was before, millions of French people have lifted up their heads," she said in a public letter Thursday addressed to Sarkozy and Hollande.
Sarkozy's UMP party has long suffered internal divisions, and Sarkozy's strategy of reaching to the far right has caused a deep rift, horrifying some.
A moderate member of the UMP, former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, argued in an interview in Thursday's Le Monde against any alliances with the National Front. "I remain attached the humanist values of our plans," he is quoted as saying.
Sarkozy has also shocked French media by treating Le Pen as a candidate like any other.
In the past, mainstream politicians kept their distance from the National Front, at least in public, because its leaders evoked uncomfortable memories of French collaboration with the Nazis. Party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen has been convicted for saying the Holocaust wasn't "particularly inhumane" and the gas chambers were a "detail of history."
"Today, we are no longer in the era of World War II," Mayer said. Mayer said only a minority of Le Pen's voters are truly on the extreme right, while the others supported her out of protest, out of fear of runaway immigration, and out of fear of globalization.
Sarkozy says he understands these voters' anger and wants to turn it to his advantage.
Sarkozy "is running after us but ... won't catch us," Le Pen ally Aliot said. "We will buy him a blonde wig, then he will have the full finery."
Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.