By Stephen Sandelius

PARIS (MNI) – French President Nicolas Sarkozy enjoys widespread
and growing support from business in his campaign for re-election, but
this alone will not suffice to turn the tide of public opinion in his
favor.

Sofres pollster Emmanuel Riviere estimates Sarkozy’s support from
entrepreneurs at more than 40% for the first round of the elections on
April 26, compared to barely 30% of the overall electorate. For the
run-off ballot two weeks later, polls point to around 60% business
support for the incumbent vs 47% among all voters.

“It is no doubt the electorate that will be most in line with
Sarkozy,” Riviere said.

Even if Sarkozy has rolled back some of the tax breaks for high
earners granted at the start of his mandate and intends to impose a
minimum tax on multinationals, his track record remains quite favorable
to business, with attractive write-offs for research spending, tax-free
overtime hours and abolition of most local business taxes.

The president has done “an extraordinary job” in a number of areas
of interest to business, exclaimed Laurence Parisot, head of the
employers’ group Medef. “I believe we don’t appreciate enough everything
[he has] achieved in recent years.”

While the Medef claims to be above the electoral fray, Parisot & Co
make no bones about their preferences, particularly on fiscal policy.
Whereas Sarkozy aims to shift E13 billion of employers’ payroll charges
onto consumers, Hollande is opposed and wants to boost business taxes by
over E17 billion (not to mention his 75% tax on incomes over a million
euros).

“The program of Hollande, as it stands, would make us even less
competitive,” Parisot charged in a weekend radio interview. “It’s simply
unsupportable. We’re suffocating!”

A recent Ifop survey showed especially strong support for Sarkozy
among the captains of companies with fewer than 20 employees — those
accounting for the overwhelming majority of all firms. Among this
electorate, Sarkozy is well ahead in the first round with 44% (and
rising) compared to 19% for the Socialist Francois Hollande, 16% for the
centrist Francois Bayrou and 10% for the rightwing candidate Marine Le
Pen.

If small business alone determined the outcome, the president would
be re-elected with a landslide two thirds of the vote in the run-off,
the survey suggests.

National Front leader Le Pen enjoys considerable support from small
business too, especially retailers. She has pledged to cut their taxes,
establish a “real Small Business Act” and create a E12 billion support
fund financed by big business.

Yet the head of the small business association CGPME, Jean-Francois
Roubaud, warned Le Pen in a recent debate that her plan to pull France
out of Europe’s monetary union does not inspire many of his members.

The centrist Bayrou also counts many independent professionals
among his supporters and is at least as determined as Sarkozy to cut
government spending and bring public finances into balance.

Still, as the elections draw near, Sarkozy is winning over some
less committed backers of Bayrou and Le Pen, whose stagnation in the
opinion polls at around 10% and 15%, respectively, signals their defeat
in the first round.

This trend is likely to continue in the next weeks, predicts
pollster Riviere. “But whether that’s enough to change the tune is an
entirely different matter.”

An Ipsos survey conducted late last month shows Sarkozy’s image
improving and Hollande’s eroding across the board. While the incumbent
is still considered less credible, less “sincere,” much less
“sympathetic” and more removed from the people than his Socialist
adversary, he has widened his lead in the categories “dynamism” and
“presidential stature,” and has even edged out Hollande for his
“convictions.”

The same survey shows that centrist voters who have made the switch
to Sarkozy welcome his firm yet measured reaction to the serial killings
in southern France last month, while those on the extreme right hail the
new focus on restricting immigration and thwarting the incursion of
Islamic values into French culture.

Given the pro-business program of the incumbent and the frank
anti-capitalism of Hollande’s potential allies on the far left, one
might ask why so many entrepreneurs still hesitate to back Sarkozy.

“People don’t vote solely for professional reasons,” explained
Riviere. Other factors, he said, include personal convictions, the
social or geographical environment, and the attractiveness of a
candidate.

Indeed, a number of highly placed business leaders, some of whom
have benefitted from their ties to previous Socialist governments,
openly admit their leftist leanings. And Sarkozy’s credibility deficit
extends to business circles as well, although it less pronounced than in
other social-professional categories.

The Ifop poll of small business leaders signals broad support,
especially in the retail and hotel branches, for Hollande’s proposal to
subsidize a “contract of generations” to permit the professional
training of new young recruits by elderly employees.

The Ifop poll also shows that small bosses share the dominant
concerns of the broader electorate about high unemployment and
stagnating real incomes. However, they tend to give higher priority to
“secondary” issues like public debt, economic growth and tax reform.

Even if they were to vote as a bloc, the country’s 2.5 million
entrepreneurs alone should not be enough to tip the scales. At the other
end of the spectrum, the CGT trade union is calling for a vote against
Sarkozy and the less radical CFDT union recently slammed the president
for “his repeated attacks since the start of his campaign…against the
social partners and unions in particular.”

–Paris newsroom +331 4271 5540; email: ssandelius@marketnews.com

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