French far-right spooks rivals in vote poll

by Sofia Bouderbala, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Mar 08 2011 08:35 PM | Updated as of Mar 09 2011 04:35 AM

PARIS, France - French far-right leader Marine Le Pen had her political rivals on the run Tuesday after a poll showed she could beat any of the top likely candidates in a first-round presidential election.

The survey by pollster Harris Interactive published in Le Parisien newspaper showed Le Pen would win 24 percent of the first-round vote, ahead of the leading contenders from the main left- and right-wing rival parties.

"If ever there were a moment to shake up the system, it is now," Le Pen told supporters in the eastern city of Strasbourg on Tuesday.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the IMF chief who has polled as the strongest candidate for the opposition Socialists, would win 23 percent if he were in the race, with President Nicolas Sarkozy beaten into third place on 20 percent.

The poll said Le Pen would also come out top if the Socialists were represented by Francois Hollande, another of its main contenders, with Sarkozy in second place in that scenario.

Another Harris poll on Sunday showed the Socialists' other main potential candidate Martine Aubry would score level with Sarkozy behind Le Pen.

Le Pen, 42, took over the leadership of the far-right National Front in January from her father Jean-Marie, who made it into the second round of the presidential election in 2002.

The party has forced the UMP, Sarkozy's majority right-wing party, to compete against it with tough policies on immigration, crime and Islam.

But politicians and observers said the latest polls showed this strategy is not working.

"Let's not beat about the bush. This poll scares me," said Bernard Debre, a UMP lawmaker, on France Info radio, referring to the Harris survey.

"We in the UMP have to look at what we are doing on Islam, national identity and secularism, which is not being understood," he said. "We are hunting on the National Front's territory and that is benefitting the far right."

"This sounds an alert," said Hollande on Europe 1 radio on Tuesday. "This poll does not show who would finish where in the presidential election but it indicates a rise of the far right."

Sarkozy's opponents say he has benefitted the Front by his high-profile line on immigration and crime, two of the Front's key themes.

"Who is feeding the National Front? Those who spend their time talking about fear of those who are different," Aubry said on Friday.

In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen was beaten in the second round as supporters of the defeated Socialist Lionel Jospin switched to the UMP candidate, Jacques Chirac.

Faced with a strong showing by the Front in 2012, the other parties will likely count on the same second-round effect.

"If Nicolas Sarkozy faces Marine Le Pen (in the second round) he will win the presidential election," political scientist Stephane Rozes told AFP.

The Socialists will hold a primary in October to name their candidate. The apparent front-runners -- party leader Aubry and Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund -- have yet to confirm that they will stand.

Sarkozy has yet to declare his candidacy officially but is widely expected to run.

But the poll on Tuesday raised the question of whether he should reach out to other centre-right parties, and exposed doubts about whether he could manage.

Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, leader of the minority right-wing party Debout La Republique, called "solemnly on Nicolas Sarkozy to give up his candidacy if he wishes to avoid the suicide of the right."

The Harris survey was conducted online, a method sometimes seen as less accurate than telephone polling. The pollster said it offered a cash prize as an incentive to take part but denied that this compromised the findings.