Sarkozy Returns to Campaign Trail Seeking to Close Hollande Lead

President Nicolas Sarkozy sought to maintain his campaign momentum, seeking to narrow an unprecedented deficit in polls after France’s first homegrown Islamic terrorist murders convulsed the nation this week.

Speaking to supporters in Strasbourg late yesterday, Sarkozy congratulated police who cornered and killed the man suspected of assassinating seven people, including three children, and lauded the nation’s spirit.

“A murderer sought to put France on its knees,” Sarkozy said. “He was neutralized.”

A month before the April 22 first-round ballot, the challenge for Sarkozy is to capitalize on the law-enforcement success without appearing opportunistic, pollsters say. While three surveys have shown the incumbent gaining support for the opening round, he remained at least eight points behind Socialist Francois Hollande in a potential May 6 run-off.

“This sort of gap has never been seen before,” said Emmanuel Riviere, a pollster at TNS Sofres in Paris. “That doesn’t mean it can’t be done but never has such a wall been climbed with just one and a half months before the final vote.”

The two leading candidates are neck-and-neck in first round support. A BVA poll of 978 voters taken March 21 and 22 after the terrorist incident gave Hollande 29.5 percent support, compared with 28 percent for Sarkozy. The Socialist candidate was down 1.5 points since mid-February, while Sarkozy had gained 2 points.

The same survey predicted a second round result of 54 to 46 for Hollande, narrower than the 12-point spread registered a month ago. The BVA poll has a margin of error of 2.5 points.

Campaigns Suspended

The suspected killer in southwest France was Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old of Algerian descent, who was shot in the head by police yesterday. The attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse March 19 prompted candidates to suspend their campaigns.

The murders have thrown the spotlight on issues such as immigration and crime that voters perceive as strengths of Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement party. About 58 percent of voters judge Sarkozy “capable of reducing insecurity,” compared with 39 percent for Hollande, according to Ifop-Logical polling. The same survey showed a 59-38 perception gap on the ability of the two candidates to “make difficult decisions.”

In Strasbourg yesterday, Sarkozy played to such themes, repeating the words ’’authority’’ and ’’responsibility,’’ and evoking the “values that are fundamental to our nation.”

‘Positive Effect’

“The facts speak for themselves: the man was arrested, he won’t kill more people, he is dead,” said Douglas Yates, a professor at the American Graduate School in Paris in an interview. “Sarkozy can use the benefits and not have to play with this story. He looked competent, the net effect is positive.”

Hollande, who held his first campaign speech after the drama in Toulouse in the central town of Aurillac, spoke about the need for “national unity.” He promised a crackdown on petty crime and gangs that “feed terrorist activities.”

Sarkozy first came to national attention as mayor of Neuilly, a town near Paris, when in a 1993 kindergarten hostage drama he talked a dynamite-belted, ransom-demanding gunman into releasing a child, with television footage showing the mayor leaving the classroom with the youngster in his arms. After 46 hours of talks, the gunman was killed by police sharpshooters and the seven remaining hostages were freed unharmed.

So far, security hasn’t been a major issue in the election. Just 15 percent of voters said it will influence their choice, behind the economic crisis at 50 percent, unemployment at 46 percent and government debt at 32 percent, according to Ifop. Whether the killings will become a voter preoccupation remains to be seen, pollsters said.

The killings in Toulouse and Montauban by someone like Merah, who was born in the country, is “unheard of, unseen before in France,” Jerome Sainte-Marie, who heads Paris-based CSA’s public-opinion department, said in an interview yesterday. “So we have no benchmark to understand the repercussions.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Mark Deen in Paris at markdeen@bloomberg.net; Helene Fouquet in Paris at hfouquet1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at jhertling@bloomberg.net

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