/ 19 April 2007

Poll: Sarkozy, Royal pull ahead in French election race

France’s presidential election on Sunday looks set to be a traditional contest between the main right and left parties as a bid by a centrist candidate to mount a challenge loses steam, a poll on Thursday showed.

With three days to go before the first round of the election, the race appears to be between former interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Ségolène Royal as the challenge from centrist Francois Bayrou fades.

The survey from pollsters BVA, one of the last before the weekend, showed law-and-order hardliner Sarkozy on 29 points in the first round, ahead of Royal on 25, Bayrou on 15 and far-right veteran Jean-Marie Le Pen on 13.

The other eight candidates, who stretch across the political spectrum, were well adrift.

Le Pen stunned France in 2002 by knocking then-Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin out of the race, before going on to be crushed by President Jacques Chirac in the run-off.

With up to 40% of voters yet to make up their mind or uncertain of their choice, the candidates are criss-crossing France to try to bolster their vote.

The influential newspaper Le Monde urged the French on Thursday to set up a classic left-right second-round contest by voting for Royal or Sarkozy, saying they had the most coherent programmes and the strongest teams for eventual government.

”It is important that in the second round, our ‘old and dear country’ can say clearly where it wants to go,” it said in an editorial, without choosing between the two frontrunners.

Opinion-poll leader Sarkozy, whose high-octane personality has been vilified by opponents in recent days, launched an operation dubbed ”72 hours to win” on Thursday, promising events right up to the eve of the election to win over the undecided.

”This operation is important because lots of people have not yet chosen,” he wrote on his internet blog. ”Now is the time to whip up support and enthusiasm.”

Suburb support

Sarkozy, who made a name with his tough crackdown on riots in France’s poor suburbs in 2005 and who is the most economically liberal of the candidates, has frightened many voters who consider him excessively authoritarian.

His rivals have stepped up attacks on his character and accused him of trying to steal votes from Le Pen.

Presenting herself as someone who could heal France’s social rifts, Royal promised on Thursday to help the poor high-rise suburbs that ring many cities and were hit by rioting in 2005.

”These neighbourhoods are not a problem but a solution to France’s problems because they are a reservoir of energy.”

Royal, who combines a left-wing economic platform with an emphasis on traditional social values, is fighting back after a rocky campaign strewn with gaffes led many to question her competence to become France’s first woman president.

The election campaign has run against a background of worries over jobs, immigration and security, but increasingly focused on the personalities of the main candidates.

Both candidates have had to face sniping from their own sides and a series of quickie campaign books accusing them variously of incompetence and arrogance have been best sellers.

Sarkozy and Royal hold their last major rallies on Thursday night — the former in the port city of Marseille and the latter in the southern city of Toulouse, where she will receive the backing of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. — Reuters