Sarkozy, Hollande forge ahead in French election poll

PARIS Mon Feb 6, 2012 5:01pm EST

PARIS (Reuters) - Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande and conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy pulled ahead of rivals in an opinion poll on Monday that is the second recent survey to suggest the April-May election could become a clear two-horse race.

Hollande surged ahead to double his lead over Sarkozy to 8 points, and Sarkozy also gained to stand a full 10 points ahead of far-right leader Marine Le Pen and 12 points ahead of centrist Francois Bayrou, in the survey by pollster BVA.

Hollande is riding high after a strong campaign launch in late January followed by an able performance in a televised debate against Sarkozy's hardball foreign minister, Alain Juppe.

The poll, to be published on Tuesday in the daily Le Parisien, showed Hollande remains the clear favorite, and predicted him easily defeating Sarkozy in a second-round runoff with 58 percent to 42 percent.

A separate poll by LH2 at the weekend also showed the two mainstream candidates pulling ahead of their rivals, after months of surveys that pointed to a close-run first round.

Sarkozy is waiting until close to a March 16 deadline before formally declaring his re-election bid, but he is already on the warpath, working on a rash of measures to bolster jobs and competitiveness, and winning the support of German Chancellor Angela Merkel for his upcoming campaign.

Stuck with some of the lowest popularity ratings ever seen by a French president, Sarkozy is also paying the price for three years of economic malaise and Europe's raging debt crisis.

Tuesday's poll put Hollande at 34 percent in the April 22 first round, up from 28 percent in a January 6-7 poll, and Sarkozy at 26 percent, up from 24 percent. It gave Le Pen 16 percent support, down from 17, and Bayrou 14 percent, up from 11.

Le Pen, who a few months ago looked as if she could make it into a May 6 runoff, has slipped back, due in part to misgivings over her desire to take France out of the euro if she wins.

Le Pen is also struggling to obtain the 500 signatures she needs from elected local officials in order to run.

While analysts see fourth-placed Bayrou as more likely to support Sarkozy than Hollande in a runoff, Hollande could benefit from the recent withdrawal from the race of maverick left-wing candidate Jean-Pierre Chevenement.

The BVA poll was carried out by telephone on February 3-4 among 968 people.

(Reporting By Catherine Bremer; Editing by Ben Harding)

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