PARIS — Nicolas Sarkozy is parroting French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and embracing her anti-immigrant electorate in a desperate bid for a second term as president.
Yet Ms. Le Pen seems determined to see Mr. Sarkozy fail.
Ms. Le Pen, who rails against what she calls the "Islamization" of France, came in a strong third place in the first round of France's presidential election this month and could play the kingmaker for the decisive second round Sunday.
Logic would suggest that Ms. Le Pen should endorse the conservative Mr. Sarkozy, a fellow critic of the left who has carried Ms. Le Pen's ideas into mainstream discourse - and policy.
But Ms. Le Pen has shown no signs of backing Mr. Sarkozy.
Instead, she seems to be hoping that Socialist Francois Hollande wins the presidency, Mr. Sarkozy's conservative UMP party crumbles in disarray, and Ms. Le Pen herself emerges as the face of the French opposition.
"She is doing the maximum to keep Mr. Sarkozy from winning," said Nonna Mayer of the Center for European Studies at the Institute for Political Sciences in Paris. "She wants the UMP to explode. Her idea is to show her force and ... represent the right."
Ms. Le Pen's immediate sights are set on parliamentary elections in June, where she hopes her National Front party will win seats for the first time since 1986 and build alliances with the harder right members of the UMP.
Announcement expected Tuesday
Ms. Le Pen's ready smile and soft blond highlights present the perfect public face for a party that is trying to "de-demonize" itself after decades under party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine's firebrand father, repeatedly convicted for racism and anti-Semitism.
Marine Le Pen has focused her ire on France's millions of Muslims, stoking fear about halal meat and comparing Muslims who pray on the streets for lack of mosque space to Nazi occupiers.
She wants France to abandon the euro currency and return to the franc, and to drastically reduce the number of immigrants to 10,000 a year.
Mr. Sarkozy, too, wants to slash the number of immigrants, and he championed a law banning Islamic face veils from the street, saying they run counter to French values. He speaks regularly of the French identity, seen as code for the traditional white, Catholic heartland.
Ms. Le Pen said she will announce Tuesday whether she is endorsing anyone for the presidential runoff.
Polls suggest only about half of Ms. Le Pen's voters would support Mr. Sarkozy in the second round, with the others either abstaining or voting for Mr. Hollande.
"Sarkozy has lost. He won't be re-elected," Ms. Le Pen said in a recent interview with the Associated Press.
Her party's No. 2, Louis Aliot, said he would cast a blank ballot because Mr. Sarkozy has "insulted" the National Front. Speaking on France-Inter radio, Mr. Aliot predicted a "remaking" of the French right after the presidential election.
Ms. Le Pen's party may campaign for parliamentary elections under a new name, Ms. Mayer said, noting that the National Front remains scarred by past fractures.
Ms. Le Pen "wants to change the image of the party to arrive in power herself," Ms. Mayer said.
Ms. Le Pen has asked the UMP leadership to announce publicly whether it will endorse her candidates or Socialist ones in constituencies where a far right and leftist candidate face off in the parliamentary elections.
A candidate like any other
"From now on, nothing will be like it was before, millions of French people have lifted up their heads," Ms. Le Pen said in a public letter Thursday addressed to Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Hollande.
Mr. Sarkozy's UMP party has long suffered internal divisions, and Mr. Sarkozy's strategy of reaching to the far right has caused a deep rift, horrifying some.
A moderate member of the UMP, former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, argued in an interview in Thursday's Le Monde against any alliances with the National Front.
"I remain attached the humanist values of our plans," he is quoted as saying.
Mr. Sarkozy also has shocked French media by treating Ms. Le Pen as a candidate like any other.
In the past, mainstream politicians kept their distance from the National Front, at least in public, because its leaders evoked uncomfortable memories of French collaboration with the Nazis.
Party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen has been convicted for saying the Holocaust wasn't "particularly inhumane" and the gas chambers were a "detail of history."
"Today, we are no longer in the era of World War II," Ms. Mayer said.
Ms. Mayer said only a minority of Ms. Le Pen's voters are truly on the extreme right, while the others supported her out of protest, out of fear of runaway immigration and out of fear of globalization.
Mr. Sarkozy says he understands these voters' anger and wants to turn it to his advantage.
Mr. Sarkozy "is running after us but ... won't catch us," Le Pen ally Mr. Aliot said. "We will buy him a blond wig, then he will have the full finery."