Sarkozy courts the far-right in effort to catch socialist Hollande

PARIS — Before arriving here today to find France braced for its presidential election run-off May 6, I stopped at London’s Ladbroke’s, the world’s most storied of oddsmakers.  The odds against Nicolas Sarkozy winning, the bookmaker told me, were 4-to-1, while the odds favoring Socialist challenger Francois Hollande were 1-to-7.
Those were the odds, as the campaign’s lone televised debate was held Wednesday night.  By all accounts, Sarkozy was the more aggressive during the withering two-and-one-half-hour confrontation, but Hollande remained calm.
With voter fury over the tumultuous European economy aimed at Sarkozy and a significant number of French voters put off by the President’s personality “edge,” Hollande led Sarkozy in the initial balloting April 22.  But no one here writes off the 56-year-old Sarkozy in Sunday’s runoff.  A just-completed Ipsos Poll among likely voters showed Hollande leading the incumbent by a margin of 53 to 47 percent — the closest the two have been since the campaign began.  Clearly, something is happening here.
Although Marine LePen placed third in the initial balloting last month, the National Front candidate is now treated as a pivotal force in the run-off. Her anti-immigrant stance and opposition to NATO and the European Union and European Central Bank clearly resonated with voters, who gave LePen a never-anticipated 18 percent of the vote in Round One.  Standing before a statue of Joan of Arc at a rally of her followers in Paris May 1, the 43-year-old LePen denounced both Sarkozy and Hollande and said she would cast a blank ballot Sunday.
But National Front voters think for themselves, center-right Sarkozy insists.  The president who banned the Muslim scarf and took a hard-line on the Roma (gypsies) is assiduously courting the one in five French voters who went for LePen.
One wise analyst of the electorate found that to overtake Hollande, Sarkozy needs 60 percent of LePen’s voters and half the voters who backed centrist candidate Francois Bayrou, who got 10 percent of the vote in round one.  This is a difficult “balancing act,” as Bayrou is pro-European and moderate on immigration–in other words, a world apart from LePen.
With those chunks of LePen and Bayrou voters, Sarkozy would be in a near-tie with his Socialist nemesis and would need some dramatic event or stumble by Hollande to put him over.  As to what this stumble might be, one possibility could have occurred at a birthday party for Socialist politician Julian Drey last Sunday.  The big news was who showed up: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose own presidential hopes were dashed in a sensational string of scandals beginning with his arrest in New York last May for allegedly assaulting a hotel maid.  The politician known as DSK dodged that bullet, but is now facing more serious charges of his alleged involvement in a prostitution ring in France.
Upon learning that DSK was at the birthday party, 2007 Socialist nominee Segolene Royal (who is the mother of Hollande’s four children) stormed out and Hollande himself canceled an appearance at the party.  Incredibly, the party was held at the site of what was once a notorious house of prostitution.
Just the appearance of Strauss-Kahn sent the Hollande camp into fervent denials that DSK would ever be considered for a position in a Socialist government. 
As madcap and almost comical as the whole incident was, it also showed that little mis-steps and foibles could shake up a contest that is clearly going down to the wire — and one Nicolas Sarkozy just might beat the odds on.