Sarkozy brings electoral circus to London

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Hundreds of supporters of the French presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy were turned away from a rally in London last night, as the centre-right candidate for the spring elections wooed the expatriate vote in Britain.

M. Sarkozy, the French interior minister and leader of the UMP party, spoke for more than an hour and was greeted with wild cheers and flag-waving before his supporters joined him on stage for the French national anthem. Many wore T-shirts bearing the slogan "Les Jeunes de Londres avec Nicolas Sarkozy". It was a triumphant end to a day,which had begun with a meeting with Tony Blair at Downing Street.

Around 2,000 people had been expected to attend the rally at Old Billingsgate Market in the City of London but police estimated that at least double that number turned up, forcing organisers to close the doors. M. Sarkozy's spokesman said the rally had been an "undoubted success" . About 60,000 of the 200,000-strong French ex-patriot community in Britain are registered to vote in the presidential election, in which M. Sarkozy is narrowly ahead in the polls.

Most of those at the rally appeared to be the kind of young professionals that are a target for M. Sarkozy, who has promised to reverse the brain drain from France. One of those present, Gilles Igonnett, 28, an IT sales representative, said that he shared M. Sarkozy's views: "I had to come to London to look for work because in France it is very difficult to find jobs through the 35-hour working week and over regulation. But French people want to work. M. Sarkozy spoke a lot about that tonight. I like his ideas and I will probably vote for him."

Marie Charles, 25, an employee at the French embassy, said she was so far an uncommitted voter. "I was very impressed by his speech," she said. "I think he appeals to young people."

They were not the only endorsements M. Sarkozy received during his day in London. After lunch at Downing Street, M. Sarkozy and Mr Blair appeared on the doorstep, warmly shaking hands. M. Sarkozy told the scrum of French media that it had been a "pleasant" meeting; Mr Blair, he said, was a "very pragmatic politician". The two are said to be friends, having had several previous meetings, not just officially. The Frenchman is said to be a big admirer of the Prime Ministers longevity in office.

There was, however, some disagreement over the precise purpose of the meeting. While M. Sarkozy's spokesman said "he was there as a candidate", Downing Street insisted he had been there in his capacity as interior minister stressing there was no preferential treatment. "If Ségolène Royal [the Socialist candidate] wants to meet the Prime Minister, I am sure the Prime Minister would be happy to meet her," his spokesman said.

Mme Royal might wish to take up the opportunity because, according to the latest poll issued yesterday, M. Sarkozy is narrowly ahead in the presidential race. According to the ICOP poll, M. Sarkozy would beat her by 31 per cent to 27 per cent in the first round of voting on 22 April and by 52 per cent to 48 per cent in the run-off in between the two top candidates on 6 May.

The questioning of the French media at Downing Street avoided any references to the latest scandal to affect M. Sarkozy, an immigration and law and order hardliner at home. Opposition politicians have questioned whether M. Sarkozy's position as head of the French police was influential in the use of DNA testing to help locate the thieves who stole a scooter belonging to his son; millions of scooters are stolen in France every year and very few recovered.

The French police said DNA testing was now routine in even minor crimes, but the Socialist leader in the National Assembly, Jean-Marc Ayrault, demanded that France's constitutional court and parliament each open an investigation into Sarkozy's use of his ministry.

The Downing Street photo-opportunity in the bag, the French media followed M. Sarkozy to a job centre just off the Marylebone Road, where he met officials and job seekers. France is battling high levels of unemployment, currently around 9 per cent, and M. Sarkozy said he was anxious to learn how Britain tackled the issue.