Fighting an uphill reelection campaign, French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared Tuesday that there are too many foreigners in France.
"Our system of integration is working increasingly badly, because we have too many foreigners on our territory and we can no longer manage to find them accommodation, a job, a school," Sarkozy said on a three-hour French TV debate show Tuesday, the Guardian reported.
The startling remarks from the son of a Hungarian immigrant came just two days after the center-right leader sparked alarm in both France's Jewish and Muslim communities by saying French state schools should not serve "halal" or kosher meat.
Analysts of French politics said Sarkozy's nationalistic comments can be easily explained, if not necessarily excused: polls currently show Sarkozy to be running in second place behind Socialist Party challenger Francois Hollande. Sarkozy is trying to knock off the current third-place challenger, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, daughter of age-old right-winger Jean-Marie Le Pen, before the first round of voting on April 22nd.
"The biggest threat for Sarkozy is to go down in polls so much ... that Le Pen goes to a second round," Justin Vaisse, a French expert at the Brookings Institution, told Yahoo News Wednesday.
Polls currently show the Socialist Party's Hollande at about 30%, Sarkozy at about 25%, and Le Pen at about 17.5%, Vaisse said.
Sarkozy, in his 2007 presidential campaign, was brilliant at poaching voters from Le Pen's far-right constituency, Vaisse said. "It's almost a 'Southern' strategy, sending signals that are not racist per se, but that appeal to national identity and 'damn the foreigners'" sentiment.
But some of Sarkozy's comments this campaign suggest a degree of desperation, Vaisse said. The halal comments in particular have stirred a backlash.
"[Sarkozy] reopened a row, begun last month by Le Pen, over whether meat ritually slaughtered according to Muslim religious standards was being sold on the wider market to unsuspecting non-Muslim consumers," the Guardian reported. France's prime minister was holding crisis talks with Jewish and Muslim leaders over the controversy, the report added.
"It's the revenge of democracy," Heather Conley, director of European programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told Yahoo News Wednesday. "Sarkozy is trying to 'outright' Le Pen, that is what we see now."
Sarkozy, who portrays himself as an experienced leader bolstering France's role on the world stage, also said Tuesday that he hopes U.S. president Barack Obama is reelected. And if Sarkozy is himself reelected president, his first foreign trip will be to Germany, he said.
French Socialist candidate Hollande, by contrast, has played to French resentment of Germany during the Euro debt crisis and said he would review a recent treaty on the matter.
On a visit to the French presidential palace this month, German chancellor Angela Merkel stirred controversy in France by openly campaigning for her fellow center-right leader Sarkozy.
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