Nicolas Sarkozy came under attack Friday for allegedly cosying up to the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in his bid to become France's next president.
The call by a top Sarkozy advisor for the introduction of proportional representation in parliamentary elections was the latest proof that Sarkozy has been "seeking to move closer to the National Front," said the centrist presidential candidate Francois Bayrou.
Proportional representation would make it easier for smaller parties such as Le Pen's National Front to enter parliament, in which under the current first-past-the-post system they fail to get any seats.
Sarkozy, who has broken with outgoing President Jacques Chirac's policy of freezing out the National Front, will take pole position in the first round of voting on April 22 and has a good chance of winning the decisive second round two weeks later, opinion polls say.
The leader of Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) is frequently accused of moving further to the right by, for example, calling for a ministry of immigration and national identity.
Le Pen, who shocked France by making it to the second round of the last presidential elections in 2002, has meanwhile been perceived as moving towards the centre by toning down his rhetoric and avoiding statements seen as racist or xenophobic.
The National Front leader, a 78-year-old former paratrooper, said Thursday in an interview: "If Sarkozy says he is ready for a rapprochement, why not?"
And Sarkozy, a former interior minister who has promised to lead France through "deep changes," said in an interview with the same paper he hoped to win over voters who back Le Pen's policies of zero immigration and scrapping the euro.
"I don't like the way National Front voters are made to feel guilty," he told Le Figaro.
Civil servants prepare electoral documents for the upcoming French presidential election in Marseille April 12, 2007. (Reuters)
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But despite this apparent rapprochement, both leaders also feel the need to regularly snipe at each other and point out their differences, and Sarkozy said this week he would not appoint ministers from the National Front if he is elected.
The latest accusation of pandering to the far right by Sarkozy came after Brice Hortefeux, a senior advisor to the UMP leader, said Thursday that some seats in parliament should be set aside for election by proportional representation.
Other Sarkozy advisors said Friday that Hortefeux's views did not commit the UMP candidate in any way.
Sarkozy has been until now the only one of the four leading candidates not to make favourable noises about proportional representation.
Bayrou, who is in third place in the polls, told French radio Friday that there are "lots of signs, lots of statements that show Nicolas Sarkozy has decided to move closer to the National Front ahead of the first round."
The Socialists, whose candidate Segelone Royal is in second place in the polls, have also accused the National Front and the UMP of making secret deals.
With nine days to go before the first round of voting, the presidential race remained too close to call Friday.
The frontrunners have been travelling across France, holding rallies in key cities and towns. Turnout has been high, highlighting strong interest in the election that will usher in a new generation of leaders.
Royal, a 53-year-old mother of four who wants to become France's first woman president, is promising to bring change to France by preserving the welfare state and raft of social programmes.
The latest poll put Sarkozy still firmly in the lead with 30 percent of voting intentions, Royal second at 24 percent, Bayrou third at 18.5 percent, and Le Pen in fourth place with 13.5.
In a runoff, polls have suggested that Sarkozy would beat Royal, but a Sarkozy victory is less sure if Bayrou makes it to the May 6 second round.
There are 12 candidates in total, five of them on the far left and two on the far right.
France also holds parliamentary elections in June.