April 22, 2012 10:25 pm

Sarkozy seeks to ‘preserve our way of life’

For a crowd that had just seen its man beaten into second place, there was a remarkable sense of jubilation as raucous supporters of Nicolas Sarkozy packed into a hall to listen to the president tell them last night that “preserving our way of life is central to this election”.

Singing “La Marseillaise” with gusto and chanting “We will win”, it would have been easy to think that it was Mr Sarkozy, the centre-right incumbent, who had carried the night.

The first piece of news seized on by the crowd was when initial estimates that Mr Sarkozy had taken only 25 per cent of the vote were shown as too pessimistic.

The second apparent piece of good news, greeted with a mixture of surprise and not a little happiness, was the fact that Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, had scored an astonishing 20 per cent of the vote. To rapturous applause, Mr Sarkozy said it had been a “vote of crisis”.

Immediately reaching out to Ms Le Pen’s supporters and making reference to the fact that parties of the right had done better than the left when taken together, he said: “I know this France, I understand this France, a country that wants its borders respected and to fight delocalisation of industry, and for security for them and their family . . . We must protect France for the next five years.”

As he prepared for two weeks of head-to-head combat ahead of the second-round vote on May 6, Mr Sarkozy proposed three televised debates with his Socialist challenger, François Hollande, instead of one.

Mr Hollande later declined the offer, saying: “Just because he’s losing doesn’t mean he can change the rules.”

Some of the activists at the pro-Sarkozy rally seized upon the fact that the strong performance of Ms Le Pen, and the worse than expected showing of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate, meant that “the right had won” the night and Front supporters would switch to Mr Sarkozy in the decisive second round.

One of the biggest boos, though, was reserved for Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the Front, who appeared on television via a giant screen to deflate some of that optimism.

He said, “Sarkozy has been beaten” and that the Front would not support the incumbent in the second round.

Maylis Rayard, a 37-year-old supporter of Mr Sarkozy’s UMP, said: “It would have been better to have won. But we need to listen to the people who have voted for the National Front.

“It’s difficult for some people because of the crisis, but I think we offer them more than the others, no?”

Speaking from Tulle in central France, Mr Hollande called for unity as he thanked his supporters for putting him ahead of Mr Sarkozy, saying he was honoured to be “best placed to be the next president of the republic”.

As the crowd cheered and shouted “François, president!” a smiling Mr Hollande said the 79 per cent turnout had been “massive” and was a signal of faith in his programme.

”Thanks to you, change is on its way and nothing will stop it.”

He also said the vote was a protest against Mr Sarkozy’s record and warned that the Front’s record score was “a new signal” about people’s anger and frustration.

He called on the supporters of the far left and ecologists to back him in the second round and congratulated Mr Mélenchon and Eva Joly of the Greens.

“I want a handsome victory on May 6,” he said.

Ségolène Royal, Mr Hollande’s former partner and the Socialist candidate who lost to Mr Sarkozy in 2007, also said their party would have to address the concerns of those who voted for the extreme right.

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