Under pressure to respond to the 18 per cent of voters who backed National Front candidate Marine Le Pen in Sunday’s first round, Mr Hollande also stipulated that he would uphold and enforce a ban on the full Islamic veil, despite the fact he abstained in a Right-wing-led parliamentary vote in 2010.
“In a period of crisis in which we find ourselves, limiting economic immigration is necessary and essential,” said the centre-Left candidate who two polls released yesterday suggest will beat his conservative rival Nicolas Sarkozy in the May 6 run-off by between eight and nine percentage points.
The figures suggest Mr Sarkozy’s lurch to the hard Right on immigration and security has so far done little to boost his uphill re-election bid with eight days to go.
The embattled incumbent requires around 80 per cent of FN supporters to vote for him next Sunday, but a Harris Interactive survey published yesterday found that only 48 per cent would vote Sarkozy, while 21 per cent would back Mr Hollande and 31 per cent plan would abstain.
In a further blow to the Sarkozy campaign, the jobless rate rose in March to hit its highest level since September 1999.
Mr Hollande argues the FN vote reflects “social anger” against the “injustices” of the Sarkozy presidency, as well as rising unemployment, falling purchasing power and a perceived rolling back of public services, particularly in rural areas.
But he was criticised for evading questions in a TV debate on Thursday on whether there were too many foreigners in France—a claim Miss Le Pen and Mr Sarkozy have made in the campaign.
On Friday, he clarified his position, saying he planned to have parliament fix an annual quota for non-European Union foreigners coming to work in France.
“There will always be legal immigration. Can the number be reduced? That’s the debate,” he said, noting that Mr Sarkozy had already brought the government’s annual target for economic migrants down from 30,000 to 20,000.
“In my view, that’s the kind of level that would apply in times of crisis. In any case, the numbers will be managed,” he said.
In what some called a sign of desperation, the Sarkozy camp on Thursday wrongly accused Mr Hollande of being “linked to radical Islam”, saying he had the support of controversial Muslim scholar and Oxford professor Tariq Ramadan. The Swiss academic flatly denied ever saying he would vote Hollande.
Then Lionnel Luca, an MP from Mr Sarkozy’s ruling Right-wing majority, then laid into Mr Hollande’s partner, Valérie Trierweiler, mockingly calling her “Rottweiler, and that’s being kind to the dog”. Mr Sarkozy later condemned the outburst, saying: “I would have hated anyone saying that about Carla.”
Former prime minister Dominique de Villepin became the latest moderate Right-wingers to criticise Mr Sarkozy’s hard-Right turn, saying it “frightens me”. “The shameless poaching of extremist votes is today replacing debate. The republican red lines are being crossed one by one,” he wrote in Le Monde.
With the debate stuck on immigration and security, the candidates have spent little time on French voters’ prime concerns: employment and the economy.
On Friday, The Economist warned that a Hollande victory would be “rather dangerous” for France, as his programme promised no meaningful structural reforms, and could deepen Europe’s economic woes. Michel Sapin, in charge of Mr Hollande’s programme, slammed the liberal magazine as “anti-French”.