Sarkozy's chances fade two days before French runoff

PARIS Thu May 3, 2012 6:07pm EDT

1 of 2. People work at the television studio in La Plaine Saint-Denis, near Paris, on the eve of the televised debate for the 2012 French presidential election campaign between Nicolas Sarkozy, France's President and UMP party candidate for his re-election, and Francois Hollande, Socialist party candidate, May 1, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Franck Fife/Pool

PARIS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy's chances of holding on to power were fading two days before France's election runoff, with far-right and centrist leaders refusing to endorse him and his usually bland Socialist rival performing confidently in a TV debate.

Opinion polls suggested Sarkozy could squeeze Socialist challenger Francois Hollande's lead down to around five percentage points from as much as 10 in the last few days.

However, centrist Francois Bayrou effectively buried one of Sarkozy's last hopes of hauling himself higher on Sunday. Bayrou, who came fifth in last month's first round with 9 percent, said he would vote for Hollande on Sunday and left his supporters to make up their own minds.

Bayrou attacked Sarkozy's use of tough language on immigration and Europe, aimed at winning over the nearly one in five voters who picked far-right leader Marine Le Pen in round one - an effort which the National Front leader snubbed this week by also refusing to endorse the incumbent.

Two opinion polls - the first conducted since Wednesday evening's television debate - found Sarkozy making up ground against Hollande. Nevertheless, even the challenger's reduced lead would be tough to overcome so close to the vote.

A CSA survey found Hollande's lead falling from eight points to six after the debate, with 53 percent support to Sarkozy's 47 percent. Pollster Harris Interactive reported the same levels of support while an OpinionWay poll conducted half before and half after the debate gave Hollande his smallest margin yet of five points.

Having lagged the blander but more popular Hollande for weeks now in polls, Sarkozy's best hopes of clinching a second term hinged on winning the support of around 80 percent of Le Pen's voters for Sunday and at least half of Bayrou's.

Bayrou objected to Sarkozy's move to the right. "The line Nicolas Sarkozy chose between the two rounds is violent. It contradicts our values," Bayrou said, explaining his decision to reject the incumbent who is closer to him politically than Hollande.

Compounding a black week for the president, Sarkozy came across as agitated and tense in the nearly three-hour debate and he failed to land a knockout blow on Hollande, who was poised and confident.

Several surveys of people who watched the debate found that most felt Hollande was more convincing than Sarkozy.

Even Alain Minc, a political consultant who is one of Sarkozy's closest friends and advisers, admitted Hollande had outperformed him in the debate, watched by more than a third of the electorate.

"I think we all underestimated this guy. He's shown quite an uncommon strength of spirit this year," Minc told Reuters. "The Francois Hollande we are seeing today is different from the one we all knew. We took him for something other than he is. Either we were wrong or he has changed."

In polls only 3 percent said the debate had changed their voting plans.

BRASH AND SHOWY

Sarkozy has fought an uphill battle for re-election as economic gloom, his failure to keep a 2007 promise to cut unemployment to 5 percent, and a dislike of his brash and showy manner have turned many former supporters against him.

The rivals held their last big meetings on Thursday.

In the southern city of Toulon, Sarkozy implored voters not to elect what would be the first left-wing president in 17 years while, further west in Toulouse, Hollande supporters cheered Bayrou's decision to vote for their candidate.

At least one more poll was due to land on Friday, the last day of official campaigning before a blackout from midnight.

Voting booths open at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) on Sunday and close either at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) or two hours later in big cities.

Reliable projections of the result based on a partial vote count will be published once the last polling stations close.

The runoff coincides with parliamentary elections in Greece, where voters are set to punish mainstream parties for imposing austerity, and a week before a German regional election when Chancellor Angela Merkel may suffer a mid-term rebuff to her strict austerity policies.

For French voters, the economic crisis, Europe's debt woes and pressure on household incomes have been the overriding issues, driving the wave of support for Le Pen's National Front.

"It's the people who are really struggling financially who vote for Le Pen," said Dominique Reynie, a professor at Sciences Po University and head of the liberal think tank Fondapol.

"For the runoff, people voting for Sarkozy are thinking about somebody who can lead in Europe and handle the crisis. Those who vote for Hollande are thinking about their own purchasing power and social well-being."

(Additional reporting by Vicky Buffery; editing by David Stamp)

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Comments (5)
nick099 wrote:
Left, right, and centrist…..all do not seem to mind to align with each other why???? Because Left, Right, and Centrist parties all all Marxist…they are all cousins from the same twisted family tree.

May 03, 2012 7:35pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
SeanSNJ wrote:
Of course the French will elect the far-left candidate. The French have shown themselves during the past century singularly prone to make the worst possible decisions at the worst possible times. Just as the French left themselves open to German invasion on multiple occasions, they will elect the Socialist candidate who will leave their borders open to even more immigrants hostile to French traditions and their treasury open to unionists and other Marxists who will continue to run their economy into the ground. While Sarkozy was no charm, he’s far better than the alternative. But those of us in the U.S. have nothing to worry about – a weak France economically means more opportunity for America in global markets (that is, so long as we can get rid of Obama in November).

May 03, 2012 7:36pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Kenpuck wrote:
Marine LePen has said she will cast a blank ballot, so the FN vote (18.5%) in the first round will not go to Sarkozy. This means that he is certain to lose. (LePen is playing a dangerous game, waiting for the new government to fall on its face and then looking to ride in on her Joan-of-Arc charger.)

The French election results will have far-reaching consequences.

Hollande will follow a traditional Keynesian model and try to inflate France out of her difficulties. This will lead immediately to a major confrontation between Hollande and Angela Merkel — and a new euro crisis when Germany refuses to contribute more bail-out money to the European Central Bank. This crisis will have an effect on the U.S economy as American banks holding foreign bonds start to sweat and the ability of foreign countries to pay for U.S. exports becomes doubtful. The EC itself hangs in the balance as nations begin to reassess the question of sovereignty — and a new world financial crisis begins to take shape.

The CGT will dance in the streets when the returns are in, but their joy will be short-lived as the reality of what they have wrought sinks in. Aprés Sarkozy, le dèluge.

May 03, 2012 7:52pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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