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Le Pen declines to back Sarkozy

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Marine le Pen, leader of France’s extreme right National Front, on Tuesday refused to back either incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy or François Hollande, his socialist challenger, in Sunday’s presidential election, telling thousands of followers at a Paris rally that she would cast a blank vote.

Relishing her kingmaker role since coming third with 17.9 per cent in the election’s first round, Ms Le Pen delivered her expected snub to the centre-right Mr Sarkozy, who needs a big chunk of her 6.5m voters if he is to trump Mr Hollande’s opinion poll lead.

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She said she had “no confidence” in either candidate. “On Sunday I will vote blank … Each one of you will make your own choice,” she declared.

The election campaign dominated the May day parades in Paris as separate rallies by Ms Le Pen and Mr Sarkozy challenged the traditional trade union-led demonstrations by the left.

Mr Sarkozy appealed for “tens of thousands” of his centre-right supporters to come to his “celebration of work” rally near the Eiffel Tower organised to counter the union-dominated May day marches.

In a break with a convention of not endorsing a presidential candidate, the communist CGT, France’s biggest union, has called for a vote against Mr Sarkozy, angering the president’s campaign. Mr Sarkozy, who in turn upset the left by referring to his rally as celebrating “real work”, said on Tuesday that France could only recover from economic crisis by working harder, not by sharing work through measures such as the 35-hour week, introduced a decade ago by a socialist government.

In a broadcast interview, he said he was speaking for “taxi drivers, artisans, shopkeepers, white collar employees, those who have bought a house and have a small nest-egg”.

Mr Hollande, meanwhile, kept his distance from the trade union parade, apparently to avoid being pictured surrounded by red flags and other symbols of the radical left. He travelled instead to visit the home of Pierre Berégovoy, a distinctly moderate Socialist prime minister who committed suicide on May 1 in 1993.

Ms Le Pen has consistently depicted Mr Sarkozy and Mr Hollande as “Siamese twins” in policy terms and as bad as each other.

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The NF, holding its May day rally to mark the birth of national heroine Joan of Arc, whose 600th anniversary falls this year, hopes to use the outcome of the election to help it gain seats in June’s parliamentary elections.

“The start of an ideological conquest will be followed by a political conquest in the legislative elections,” Ms Le Pen told the Journal du Dimanche Sunday newspaper.

Ms Le Pen, who sees her mission as de-stigmatising the anti-immigrant nationalist party and bringing it within the mainstream, is hoping that if Mr Sarkozy loses in Sunday’s vote, his UMP party will break apart, allowing for a new rightwing formation in which the NF can play a key role. She is considering changing the party’s name after the presidential election to help rid it of her father’s anti-semitic connotations.

There are already tensions within the UMP, as some senior party members are uncomfortable with Mr Sarkozy’s play to the right during the campaign. The president last week promised more controls on immigrants and legal protection for police who kill suspects in self-defence – the latter is part of the NF manifesto.

Mr Sarkozy has ruled out an alliance with the NF or government jobs for its members but said its voters must be listened to.

Five years ago, Mr Le Pen failed to gain a single seat for his party in the National Assembly, an outcome Ms Le Pen hopes to change radically under her banner, the Blue Marine Assembly.

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