PARIS – President Nicolas Sarkozy starkly laid out his path to re-election 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 ogled 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 — close to one-in-five voters and 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 stamp out what she claims is 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, 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 post-election 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 mostly Sarkozy. 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 people "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 Quimper, 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 a population 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.
Voter frustration with the status quo and with the EU fed a rise of support for extremes at both ends of the political scale, with nearly 30 percent of France's 44 million voters backing candidates of the far right and left.
Wooing Le Pen's supporters is a more difficult task. She has said in the past she won't give followers instructions on how to vote on May 6.
Le Pen outpolled her father, firebrand Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party founder who reached the final round in 2002 presidential elections against then-President Jacques Chirac.
"The strength of the populist extreme right shows that there is all over Europe a rise of populism as a result of the economic crisis," said political analyst Dominique Moisi.
Sunday's voting results have profound consequences not only for the fate of France, but of Europe itself. And as the victor strives to steer a course out of economic turmoil, he may find himself haunted by populist promises made in courting the fringes.
If Hollande wins the runoff, he will become France's first Socialist president since Francois Mitterrand left office in 1995. Polls taken Sunday night continued to show Hollande is likely to best Sarkozy in their head-to-head matchup by around 10 percentage points.
Hollande, whose victory worried financial markets Monday because of his pledges to boost government spending, vowed to cut France's huge debts, boost growth and unite the French after Sarkozy's divisive first term. He also favors a 75 percent tax on the wealthy.
Sarkozy, meanwhile, is battling to avoid becoming France's first one-term president since Valery Giscard d'Estaing lost to Socialist Francois Mitterrand in 1981. Sarkozy has said he'll pull out of politics if he loses.
Whatever happens to France's leadership will affect the rest of the 27-nation European Union, since it's the eurozone's second-largest economy after Germany.
Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel — a tandem that some call "Merkozy" — have championed a treaty on budget austerity for the 17-nation eurozone. But Hollande wants the treaty to also address economic growth, not just cost-cutting.
In Brussels, EU officials warned Sarkozy against flirting too much with the extreme right and sacrificing hard-fought European unity built on the ashes of World War II.
"All the commissioners have appealed to all politicians in Europe to be careful because there is a threat from radical parties," said EU Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly. Extreme-right values "are fundamentally against the ideals that have led to the construction of Europe."
Sarah DiLorenzo, Jonathan Shenfield in Paris, and Masha Macpherson in Tulle contributed to this report.