France's Hollande battles voter apathy and rival on left
France's Socialist presidential challenger Francois Hollande set out on Friday to battle voter apathy, after finding himself outflanked on the left by the firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon.
Hollande has been the favourite to defeat right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy's re-election bid for six months, but his long campaign has failed to catch fire and he is seeking new energy to carry him through to polling day.
Polls suggest that as many as a third of French voters might abstain in the first round of voting on April 22, implying that, while Sarkozy remains an unpopular leader, Hollande has yet to convince swing voters.
And meanwhile, his own core support is being chipped away by the rise of Melenchon, a candidate of a hard-left coalition that includes the Communist Party, who has upstaged Hollande with a series of huge public rallies.
Melenchon is now polling in a strong third place with around 15 percent of the vote and, while he is unlikely to win a slot in the second-round run-off against Sarkozy on May 6, he has taken the wind out of Hollande's sails.
On Thursday night, tens of thousands of Melenchon's supporters flooded into the central square in the southern city of Toulouse to hear him call once more for a new French "citizens' revolution".
"Perhaps our programme is not realistic by your accountant's norms, but it is realistic under ours, and ours are called to the right to live our lives!" he declared, to roars of approval from a sea of red banners.
Hollande's response to the threat from the left, and to those who may boycott the poll, has been to urge the left to unify behind his more "useful" candidacy and to beware Sarkozy's attempts to sow confusion.
The right-wing incumbent has on several occasions publicly flattered Melenchon, saying that, while he does not agree with his hard-left agenda, he "has great qualities" and "at least he has ideas".
On Thursday, at a rally in the southern city of Nimes that did not match Melenchon's for size, Hollande warned of the dangers of splitting the left's vote by voting for a candidate with no chance of final victory.
"There are two risks in this election. The first is that of abstention, resignation, fatalism," he warned. "The second is that of a dispersal of the left."
He said the incumbent was feigning affection for Melenchon: "Nicolas Sarkozy tells himself, 'It would be good if the left was separated, divided, scattered'. Well no, he won't succeed, the left will unite."
"My duty, beyond sharing your anger and frustration, is to make the left win," he said. "I'm seriously on the left, but I'm for a serious left."
According to an opinion poll published Wednesday by the CSA institute, which matches other recent surveys, Sarkozy ought to come out on top in the first round with 30 percent of the vote to Hollande's 29 percent.
Melenchon is polling at around 15 percent, eating into Hollande's support.
Far-right flag-bearer Marine Le Pen is hovering at 13 percent and unlikely to match her father Jean-Marie le Pen's 2002 feat of winning a place in the run-off. Centrist Francois Bayrou has slipped into fifth place.
According to CSA, if the second round were fought this weekend, Hollande would comfortably beat Sarkozy with 54 percent to 46.
© 2012 AFP