PARIS - Seeking a victory in next week's runoff, France's presidential rivals are playing the themes of fear of immigration and insecurity in an effort to win far-right voters.
"National Front voters must be respected," President Nicolas Sarkozy told reporters as he left his campaign headquarters in Paris, Reuters reported.
"They voiced their view. It was a vote of suffering, a crisis vote. Why insult them? I have heard Mr Hollande criticizing them."
Sarkozy was pipped by his socialist candidate Francois Hollande in Sunday's first round by 28.6 percent to 27.2 percent.
However, National Front leader Marine Le Pen stole the show, surging to 17.9 percent, the biggest tally a far-right candidate has ever managed.
"I want to talk to the little people, to the foot soldiers, to people in the countryside, to pensioners," Sarkozy told a public rally.
"You are feeling afraid," he said. "I have heard you."
Hollande, who is favorite to win a May 6 runoff, also said he will seek to convince far-right votes to cast ballot in his favor.
"It's up to me to convince the voters of the National Front," he said in an interview with left-wing daily Liberation.
Hollande put Le Pen's unprecedented 18 percent score down to despair among "a suffering electorate of office workers, artisans, and blue-collar workers who are really feeling abandoned" as well as farmers struggling to make ends meet.
Those voters, some of whom came from the left, had wanted to punish not just Sarkozy but also the political system, Europe and globalization, he said.
Analysts believe that Sarkozy is trying to play up divisive issues such as Islam and immigration to win far-right voters.
"Nicolas Sarkozy is constantly trying to create cleavages... when what people expect from a president, especially in times of crisis, is to be a unifier," veteran political scientist Roland Cayrol of the Centre for Studies and Analysis, told Reuters.
He said Sarkozy is playing up divisive issues such as "real work" versus "assistance", curbing public displays of Islam in France and slashing immigration.
Hollande, meanwhile, is trying to project himself as a calm, unifying presidential figure.
"By contrast, Francois Hollande, who is the heir to a political family that invented the fundamental cleavage of the class struggle, has adopted the posture of a unifier."
Sarkozy has won the ire of French Muslims, estimated at six million, over a series of measures targeting their community.
Last year, Sarkozy's ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, started a debate on the role of Islam in secular France. He has also banned the Muslim hijab in schools and face-veil in public.
He has also vowed a crackdown on immigration because there are too many foreigners in France.
Sarkozy has also expelled a number of imams following a spate of killing in Toulouse on claims of inciting hatred.
Muslim leaders have distanced themselves from the killing, saying the murders run counter to the Islamic teachings.
Analysts say Le Pen's strategy is based on defeating Sarkozy and the mainstream right falling apart in the wake of a lost election.
Projecting himself as the outsider in the race and a victim of media and establishment bias, Sarkozy rejected the idea that Le Pen would arbitrate his duel with Hollande."There's only one referee of the second round, as there was in the first round. It's not the pollsters, it's not the pundits, it's the French people, and the French people are free. And it's not Mrs. Le Pen either," he told France 2 television.