Islamist clampdown boosts Sarkozy
Paris - French President Nicolas Sarkozy edged ahead in polls on Tuesday, capturing votes from the far-right after a crackdown on Islamists boosted his security credentials just ahead of the presidential election.
But Socialist Francois Hollande, his main rival, while losing ground in voting intentions in the first round of voting on April 22, is still set to win the second round of voting in May, according to opinion polls.
Sarkozy, who was at one point France's least popular president, has come from behind to increasingly control the campaign's themes, from security in the wake of last month's al-Qaeda-inspired killings to the economy.
He will formally unveil his manifesto later this week.
The latest Ipsos poll said on Tuesday that Sarkozy had won two percentage points in first-round voter intentions to 29.5%, while far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen dropped two points to 14%.
Hollande was forecast to win 27.5%in the first round, less than Sarkozy, but the poll said Hollande would still comfortably win the run-off on May 6 with 55% to Sarkozy's 45%.
Around 64% of those polled said their minds were already made up, while a poll at the weekend said almost a third of voters were thinking of abstaining in the first round.
Mohamed Merah's shooting spree in and around the southern city Toulouse, in which he murdered seven people, including three Jewish children, allowed Sarkozy to assume his security mantle to guide a shocked nation through a time of crisis.
Since then, Sarkozy's ministers have taken a series of measures billed as anti-extremist, refusing entry last week to Islamic preachers wanting to attend a conference and, on Monday, announcing the expulsion of five "radicals".
A series of swoops by anti-terror police on Friday netted 19 alleged Islamists, some of whom planned were planning to carry out kidnappings, including that of a Jewish magistrate in the central city of Lyon, sources told AFP.
The spokesperson for Left Front presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who has surged into third place in the polls, said she was "surprised" at the timing of Friday's arrests, and warned against "rightwing manipulation".
"I must say I'm surprised at the context," Clementine Autain told i-TELE.
"If there were dangerous Islamists before, then obviously they should have been arrested," she said.
The deputy leader of the anti-immigrant National Front, Louis Aliot, lashed out at Sarkozy, questioning the timing of the Islamist expulsions "two weeks ahead of the first round".
Aliot said the fact one of those ordered expelled by Sarkozy's Interior Minister Claude Gueant, an Algerian convicted in connection with 1994 attacks in Morocco's Marrakesh, was allowed to be in France at all was "unacceptable".
Other countries' scum
"Not only do we have to receive all the poor of the world, but on top of that, if I might say, we get all the scum from other countries. That's unacceptable," he told RMC radio.
"The government knew this Algerian was on our soil," Aliot said, but "they wait for the last two weeks, most certainly for a publicity coup".
While Friday's arrests were ordered by magistrates who are independent of the executive, the opposition has criticised the presence of television news cameras during the arrests three weeks ahead of the vote.
The lawyer of alleged Islamist ringleader Mohamed Achamlane said his client strongly denied planning any kidnap and slammed what he said was a political manoeuvre to satisfy "electoral interests".
Benoit Poquet said it would be proven "that the repeated political incursions into this case and the opportunely orchestrated media treatment... had no other ambition than to satisfy electoral interests."