Could immigration policy save the French incumbent? Nicolas Sarkozy's political future is decided this weekend

After the first round of the French presidential election saw a record vote for the anti-immigration National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, Nicolas Sarkozy’s advisor Patrick Buisson has orchestrated a reorientation of Centre-right incumbent’s campaign, shifting from a message of budgetary restraint to stating that there are too many immigrants in France and warning against Socialist Party candidate and front-runner François Hollande’s plans to allow resident foreigners the vote in some municipal elections.

The decision by Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) leadership to pursue an anti-immigrant second round campaign is unsurprising. Mr. Sarkozy had already promised to halve the level of legal immigration if re-elected, and the ‘marinistes’ represent the only plausible bloc of voters capable of creating a majority for the incumbent. However, the strategy carries major risks for the president-candidate.

Lost opportunities

While the Toulouse shootings in March coincided with narrowing gap in survey run-offs between the major candidates, Sarkozy’s criticism of the Mr. Hollande’s expensive manifesto pledges, including the creation of 60,000 new teaching positions, also contributed to his small but growing chances of re-election. Now that he is busy chasing an electorate which consistently expresses its intent to abstain, an IMF growth forecast which could renders questionable the Socialist programme has passed unnoticed. As a president who stood by unpopular pension reforms, Sarkozy has missed his chance to capitalise on his opponent's chief weakness.

Alienating the swinging centre

While his success at wooing National Front voters remains unknown, Sarkozy's tactics have already put off some centrist voters. According to a late April Opinionway survey published in La Croix, 49% of those surveyed found the UM campaign ‘too far to the right,’ including 60% of centrist François Bayrou’s supporters. The Mouvement Democrate leader has since announced that he will be voting for Hollande.

While he insists 'thing will go down to the wire' when the results are announced 6am Monday (NZST), Sarkozy seems likely to become the first one-term President of the Fifth Republic since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s 1981 defeat by François Mitterrand. Four polls from BVA, CSA, Ipsos and TNS published on the 3rd of May give Mr. Hollande between a five and seven percent lead.

Whatever the outcome, the winner has little to look forward to. With Spain and Britain officially dipping back into recession this week and a French journalist reported to be in the hands of Colombian FARC rebels, there will be scant time for celebration for the Elysée Palace’s newly elected tenant on Sunday.

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