Sarkozy closes gap as France election campaign heats up

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With just over a month to go Friday before the first round of France’s presidential vote, right-wing incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy is closing the gap with Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande.
As polls showed Sarkozy cutting his rival’s lead after several weeks of campaigning and a swerve to the right, Hollande was also facing a new threat on his left flank from firebrand Left Front candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon. The campaign was to move into a new phase Friday with the deadline at 1700 GMT for would-be candidates to hand in the 500 signatures from local mayors and other elected officials that they need to be registered to run.
The key players were all expected to reach the target but some fringe candidates, including conservative former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, were facing the prospect of failing to make the cut. Keen to regain momentum, Hollande made a three-hour appearance on France 2 public television Thursday night, in a move newspaper Liberation described as “an attempt to give his campaign a second wind”.
Hollande sought to cement his left-wing credentials, vowing to boost taxes on the rich and not backing down on his plan to introduce a 75-percent tax rate on incomes above one million euros ($1.3 million). In the face of calls from Sarkozy for France to tighten immigration rules, Hollande said he would set up a special brigade to fight people-smugglers and hold annual debates in parliament to set the number of immigrants allowed in. Hollande expressed confidence in his campaign despite his recent trouble in the polls.
“I have not strayed from the line I set since the beginning: coherence, consistency and confidence,” he said, denouncing his opponents for running an “excessive” and “vulgar” campaign. Sarkozy, an experienced and aggressive campaigner, has stepped up his attacks and moved to consolidate his hold on the right with vows to be tough on immigration and threats to pull France from Europe’s visa-free zone. A poll this week for the first time showed Sarkozy pulling slightly ahead of Hollande and the latest poll, a CSA study released Wednesday, showed them equal with 28 percent support in the first round to be held on April 22.