Nicolas Sarkozy bounced back aggressively yesterday from his defeat in the first round of the French presidential election, accusing the Socialist front-runner of cowardice and promising "respect" for the record-breaking score of the far right.
However, President Sarkozy, who is predicted to lose the run-off on 6 May by eight to 12 points, was looking increasingly isolated. The Socialist challenger, François Hollande, won endorsements from influential figures in the centre of French politics, and was backed on Sunday by the eliminated candidates of the hard-left and Greens.
No other candidate or senior figure has come forward to support the President. The far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, basking in her third place and final score of 17.9 per cent, will call on supporters to abstain when she addresses a May Day rally next Tuesday in Paris.
Around 60 per cent of Ms Le Pen's National Front voters told pollsters they will vote for Mr Sarkozy on 6 May. The President plans a hard-right, second round campaign in pursuit of the rest – even if that alienates supporters of centrist candidate François Bayrou.
President Sarkozy said yesterday that the unprecedented score for the far right was a vote born from "crisis and suffering". He said he would "respect" the voters' choice and "respond" to them in the next two weeks.
The final count of Sunday's vote put Mr Hollande in the lead with 28.63 per cent, the second-highest score for a left-wing candidate in 50 years of French presidential politics. President Sarkozy scored 27.18 per cent, making him the first sitting President to fail to top a first-round poll.
The total score for the five left and Green candidates – 43 per cent – was the highest since the victorious campaigns of the only Socialist President of the last half-century, François Mitterrand, in 1981 and 1988.
But the Socialist candidate needs substantial transfers from both the centre and from blue-collar, far-right voters to win on 6 May. Opinion polls suggest he will get them and take between 53 and 56 per cent of the vote. No candidate has ever overturned that kind of lead during the second-round campaign.
President Sarkozy's strategy – apart from hard-right rhetoric on immigration and Islam – will be to accuse Mr Hollande of being an evasive and dangerously inexperienced politician. The President called on Sunday for three live television debates instead of the traditional one. Mr Hollande refused. Mr Sarkozy accused him yesterday of being "afraid" of direct political combat.
Mr Hollande's strategy will be to continue to pose as the unassuming but tough and capable antidote to what many voters regard as the vain and erratic presidency of Mr Sarkozy.
At a rally in Quimper in Brittany yesterday, Mr Hollande said National Front voters were often "distressed people... who don't know what the next day will bring. We have to tell them that they live in a great country and that we will work to lift you up again."
Mr Hollande's campaign team said that the high NF vote was a warning to the left as well as to Mr Sarkozy. In Pas de Calais, a leftist heartland, Ms Le Pen came second with over 25 per cent of the vote, just behind Mr Hollande.
But the Socialist camp believes that hard-right rhetoric from Mr Sarkozy in the next fortnight will offend many centrist and swing voters and push them towards Mr Hollande as the only candidate who can "unite" the nation.