Sarkozy mingles with farmers, seeks backing
PARIS PRESIDENT Nicolas Sarkozy spent Saturday morning mingling with farmers at the start of France’s annual agricultural show as two opinion polls showed he can count on strong support from the sector in his re-election battle in April.
Sarkozy, who was raised in a Paris suburb and lacks the rural credentials of his predecessors, tasted milk and cheese, inspected prize bulls and told farmers their work ethic was the kind he wants to instil in France.
In what has become a ritualistic yearly demonstration of government support for an industry in a constant quest to protect European subsidies from being cut, Sarkozy promised to heed farmer concerns about volatile prices and environmental red tape.
“I stand by the same values you do, those of people who enjoy their work and want to live through it,” Sarkozy told farming students after breakfasting with cattle breeders.
He arrived just after dawn and looked tired after a week of breakneck campaigning.
“My speech here is the same as my speech at Petroplus — competitiveness, production inside France, work, effort merit,” he said, referring to his dash to an idled oil refinery on Friday to unveil a deal to keep it open for six more months.
The conservative, who lags Socialist Francois Hollande in polls for the two-round election in April and May, is battling to reconnect with a public that turned against him early in his term as he made a series of blunders, including snapping “Get lost, jerk,” to a man at the 2008 agricultural show who would not shake his hand.
The farming sector is a conservative bastion in France, and two polls published on Friday put Sarkozy in the lead among voter intentions by farmers.
An OpinionWay-Fiducial poll of 503 farmers conducted on February 21-22 gave Sarkozy 40 percent, centrist Francois Bayrou 18 percent, far-right leader Marine Le Pen 15 percent and Hollande 12 percent. It found farmers would vote 68 percent for Sarkozy and 32 percent Hollande in a runoff.
An Ifop-Fiducial survey of 602 farmers carried out on February 14-21 also showed 40 percent support for Sarkozy.
Both polls indicated some defection to the far right since 2007, when 51 percent of farmers voted for Sarkozy in the first round.
France is Europe’s top agricultural producer, accounting for nearly a fifth of output, and benefits most from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), taking around the same proportion of subsidies.
Sarkozy, who vows to defend the CAP, may benefit politically from renewed optimism among farmers over their incomes, which have risen over the past year due to increased food prices.
“Agriculture is as important for France as aeronautics, aerospace, chemicals and pharmaceuticals,” Sarkozy said. “Farmers are not gardeners of nature, they are entrepreneurs.” The president refrained from getting too close to the livestock, unlike his predecessor Jacques Chirac who would delight farmers by patting the rumps of prize cattle at the show and quaffing food and drink. Chirac was not due to attend this year, fanning speculation he was in ill health.
The 49th farm show, the biggest of its kind in Europe and held at a vast conference hall on the edge of Paris that can pack in some 4,700 animals, expects to host 700,000 visitors over nine days, including the other presidential candidates.