France's Hollande extends lead over Sarkozy: poll

PARIS Mon Feb 6, 2012 11:57am EST

PARIS (Reuters) - French Socialist election frontrunner Francois Hollande has widened his lead over President Nicolas Sarkozy despite a flurry of measures being advanced by the conservative leader to boost employment and competitiveness, a poll showed on Tuesday.

The opinion poll published by IFOP/Fiducial showed Hollande extended his lead for the first election round on April 22 to 6.5 percentage points from 4 points two weeks ago, with 31 percent support against 24.5 percent for Sarkozy.

It found Hollande could win a second-round runoff on May 6 with 58 percent versus 42 percent for Sarkozy, an increase of two percentage points for Hollande versus two weeks ago.

The poll was conducted shortly after Sarkozy, eager to cast himself as busily working to solve France's problems up to the very end of his mandate, was interviewed on prime-time TV on Sunday to detail reforms he aims to push through parliament ahead of the election.

Sarkozy wants in particular to raise the value-added tax rate to 21.2 percent from 19.6 percent as of October to fund a reduction in welfare charges paid by companies in a move aimed at making French firms more competitive against foreign rivals.

Hollande stepped up his campaign last week with his first big rally and unveiled concrete details of his program. That raised the pressure on Sarkozy, who is waiting until close to a March 16 deadline to officially declare his re-election bid.

The conservative-leaning daily Le Figaro said on its front page on Tuesday that Hollande is raising the heat on Sarkozy to pick up the pace, amid concern by some in the ruling UMP party that he is leaving it too late to launch his candidacy.

"The president is not adrift," Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, a former prime minister and political heavyweight, told Europe 1 radio. "He has a precise and very courageous strategy."

Tuesday's poll showed other candidates losing some ground. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen's support in the first round slipped to 19 percent from 20 percent two weeks ago. Centrist Francois Bayrou retreated to 11.5 percent from 12.5 percent.

The poll, conducted on behalf of Europe 1 radio, weekly magazine Paris Match and the Public Senat TV channel, was based on interviews with 1,400 registered voters on January 29-30.

(Reporting by Leigh Thomas; Editing by Mark Heinrich)