PARIS Voters look set to turn their backs on conservative Nicolas Sarkozy in Sunday's first round of an election that could give France its first left-wing president in 17 years just as fears resurface over Europe's sovereign debt crisis.
A sickly economy and a deep dislike of Sarkozy's flashy style have dominated the campaign, but the outside world's doubts about France's commitment to balance its public finances are also at stake as feeble growth threatens deficit-cutting targets in Europe's No. 2 economy.
The centre-right president, an impulsive showman, and his bland Socialist challenger, Francois Hollande, are neck-and-neck in opinion polls for the first round on about 27-28 percent. But Hollande has a wide lead in voting intentions for a May 6 runoff between the top two candidates.
Far-right anti-immigration crusader Marine Le Pen, who wants France to abandon the euro, looks set to come third, with hard left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon fourth and centrist Francois Bayrou fifth, polls show.
Sarkozy has been a striking figure on the international stage for five years, leading the European response to the global financial crisis, spearheading Western military action in Libya and working in close partnership with powerful German Chancellor Angela Merkel to manage the euro zone crisis.
But at home, he is unpopular because of a leadership style criticized as vulgar and for being too close to the rich, as well as feeling the brunt of anger over rife unemployment and economic gloom.
"There is a very deep rejection of Nicolas Sarkozy," said a former conservative politician who left the ruling UMP party last year. "This election is above all a rejection of his person, of this omnipresent and arrogant government."
Hollande, 57, promises to tread a fiscally responsible path, but his focus on tax rises over spending cuts and his call to renegotiate a European budget discipline pact has some analysts concerned that he would create a new euro zone stress point.
The Socialist says he wants to change Europe's direction by leading a drive for growth-promoting measures instead of austerity if he wins, setting up a potential clash with Merkel.
Polls will be open on Sunday from 2 a.m. EDT (0600 GMT) to 12 p.m. EDT (1600 GMT), and two hours extra in big cities.
Reliable projections of the result based on a partial count are published as soon as the last polling stations close at 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT). The authorities are threatening big fines to try to prevent exit polls and partial results leaking out on Twitter and the Internet before that deadline.
France is struggling with feeble growth, a gaping trade deficit, stubbornly high 10 percent unemployment and strained public finances that prompted Standard & Poor's to cut its triple-A credit in January.
"You can't detach France from what's going on in the wider euro zone and this election happens to coincide with a lot of other things that are exacerbating concern about the vote," said Nomura chief political analyst Alastair Newton, noting that Greece has an election the same day as the French runoff.
Hollande has promised to cut the deficit to zero by 2017, a year later than Sarkozy, but both are using growth forecasts that are far above what economists expect, and may have to scramble to find extra revenue or savings.
Market unease about how ready Hollande would be to trim spending is fuelled by concern that a resurgent hard left could end up holding the balance of power after June parliamentary elections.
"It's not simply fear of what Hollande would do, it's the fact that we're in for a two-month period of political uncertainty in France," said Newton.
The Socialist Party, which would join a small minority of centre-left governments in Europe, says it has modernized and moved to the centre since Francois Mitterrand, who oversaw a wave of nationalizations and appointed Communist ministers.
While a tub-thumping Melenchon has struck a chord with the young, factory workers and Communists, many people say they will be voting more to get rid of Sarkozy than out of enthusiasm for Hollande.
Some of the middle-of-the-road voters who swept Sarkozy to victory in 2007 now see him as too brash and "unpresidential" and object to his hardline stance on immigration.
Hollande says he aims to be a "Mr Normal" president. But his lack of dazzle has boosted support for Melenchon, who fires up crowds with calls for a citizens' revolution and confiscatory taxes on the rich.
The radical trails at least 10 points behind the mainstream candidates in opinion polls though and, after a brief surge, has fallen back behind Le Pen in the battle for the angry vote.
Sarkozy and Hollande have drawn criticism for pandering to the extremes and evading the real issues as Sarkozy swung right on immigration and trade protectionism while Hollande lurched to the left by promising a 75 percent top tax rate for people earning more than 1 million euros ($1.31 million) a year.
A debate over warning labels on halal meat took up space early in the race and television shows dissected Sarkozy's early blunders and character flaws, in one case making him discuss a medley of video clips where he spoke out of tone in public.
Hollande has had a gentler ride, yet analysts say neither top candidate has addressed the need for immediate savings measures after the election if deficit goals are to be met.
"We are in an extremely serious economic and financial situation, and nobody on the right or the left explained this properly during the campaign," said Jean-Thomas Lesueur, head of the Paris-based Institut Thomas More free-market think tank.
"As usual, France went into a bubble and didn't broach the serious issues. As soon as the election is over, reality will explode in our faces like a grenade and the erosion of public finances will be the big issue for the next president."
EUROPEAN PUNCHING BAG
Both Sarkozy and Hollande have vowed to tackle France's industrial decline due to a lack of competitiveness against low-cost foreign manufacturers, but they have shied away from promising deep structural reforms.
They have also tiptoed around the issue of slimming down a welfare system that swallows 28 percent of France's gross domestic product each year, higher than any other OECD country.
On the other hand, both have raised hackles in Berlin by criticizing European policies. Hollande wants measures to stimulate growth such as jointly issued bonds to finance investment projects added to a European fiscal compact treaty.
Sarkozy is demanding a debate on giving the European Central Bank a role in fuelling growth. He has also threatened unilateral trade restrictions on public procurement contracts unless the European Union enacts a U.S.-style "Buy European Act" and vowed to pull France out of the bloc's open-border Schengen zone unless external frontier controls are toughened.
Outsiders see his stance as pure election rhetoric, but they find it harder to read Hollande who, with no past ministerial experience, is barely known outside France.
If elected, his diplomatic skills will be put to the test at once with a flurry of meetings from a NATO summit in Chicago in mid-May to a G20 heads of state meeting in Mexico in June. ($1 = 0.7621 euros)
(Additional reporting by Yann Le Guernigou; Editing by Paul Taylor and Elizabeth Piper)