PARIS President Nicolas Sarkozy's drive to persuade voters he is the best man to lead France to economic recovery suffered a blow on Tuesday, with a survey indicating growth has ground to a halt as he struggles to make headway over his Socialist election rival.
Two weeks before the presidential elections begin, the conservative's lead over Francois Hollande is becalmed or shrinking for the first round on April 22 and he is still trailing in the runoff next month, three opinion polls showed on Tuesday.
With unemployment claims at over a 12-year high, people's purchasing power dwindling and France stripped of its prized AAA status with one credit rating agency, the Bank of France offered Sarkozy's economic record little respite.
A survey published by the central bank estimated that the economy failed to grow in the first three months this year, after expanding 0.2 percent in the final quarter of 2011, and there were no signs a strong recovery in the next few months.
Sarkozy saw his lead for the first ballot slip to half a percentage point from 2 points a week ago in a poll by Ipsos Logica, with 29 percent support to Hollande's 28.5 percent.
The same poll showed Hollande retaining a 10-point lead in voting intentions for the May 6 runoff with 55 percent to Sarkozy's 45 percent, unchanged from a week earlier.
All three surveys showed far right candidate Marine Le Pen in third place, ahead of hard left campaigner Jean-Luc Melenchon in fourth.
The election race promises a tight finish between Sarkozy, who is being punished for economic gloom and his flashy style, and the more popular but bland Hollande, whose message of higher taxes for the rich has found fertile ground.
In his manifesto, Sarkozy promised to achieve a budget surplus for the first time since 1974 and cut France's swelling debt if re-elected, warning that Hollande would lead the country towards the fate of Greece or Spain.
However, his policy of cutting the budget deficit is helping to slow the economy and hurting his election chances.
"You cannot have a tough fiscal adjustment over two years and expect strong growth at the same time," said Michel Martinez, economist at Societe Generale in Paris.
Graphic of polls, click on: r.reuters.com/was36s
Election online: tinyurl.com/7hpt4vy
Sarkozy, an aggressive debater, challenged his rival at the weekend to two television debates between the rounds but Hollande deflected the call, saying it was presumptuous to prejudge the second round when voters had not yet cast their ballots in the first.
An Ifop Fiducial poll showed Sarkozy with 28.5 percent to Hollande's 27 percent in the first round, unchanged over the last month - but Hollande's lead in the run-off narrowed to six points from eight points two weeks ago, with 53 percent to Sarkozy's 47 percent.
A third poll by Harris Interactive gave Sarkozy a one-point lead in the first round at 28 percent to Hollande's 27, down from 3 points a week earlier. It too put Hollande ahead of Sarkozy 53 to 47 in the runoff.
"For Nicolas Sarkozy to be re-elected he would have to be ahead of Francois Hollande by four or five points in the first round," Ifop analyst Frederic Dabi said. "It's the essential condition for him to turn things around but it's not working."
The president enjoyed a brief boost in the polls last month after a killing spree by an Islamist gunman and the ensuing siege enabled him to play his preferred role of crisis manager.
The drama, which gripped the nation and dominated headlines, helped shift the focus away from the economy to security and immigration, where Sarkozy is usually strongest. However, unemployment and purchasing power, which rank as voters' top concerns in polls, have since returned to the campaign focus.
Sarkozy has a chance to breathe fresh air into his campaign in television appearances on Tuesday and Thursday after the presentation of his full election manifesto last week failed to give him much uplift in the polls.
Hollande will also have the chance to fight back with his own television appearance on Wednesday.
WHO WILL BE THIRD?
The Socialist's first round score has dwindled only slightly as the more fiery Melenchon has picked up momentum on the left. Ipsos gave Melenchon 14.5 percent of the first-round vote and Ifop and Harris 14.
Eager to secure the backing of left-wing voters leaning towards Melenchon, Hollande renewed an offer on Monday to include Communists in his government if elected.
"Those who support me in the second round of the presidential election will be part of the majority. They will help lead France in government," Hollande said on i-Tele.
Centrist Francois Bayrou, a potential kingmaker if he won enough votes, continues to decline with his share of the vote in the first round falling below 10 percent in two of the polls and just scraping 10 percent in the third.
"Francois Bayrou is having trouble finding his place. Voters don't see the point of voting Bayrou," Ipsos analyst Jean Francois Doridot said on France Info radio.
The Ipsos poll was carried out for various French media and based on interviews with 955 people on April 6-7. The Ifop Fiducial poll was also conducted for various French media and was based on interviews with 1,869 people on April 5-7. The Harris poll for magazine VSD and LCP TV channel was based on interviews with 1,033 people on April 3-6.
(Reporting by Leigh Thomas, Additional reporting by Patrick Vignal and Daniel Flynn; Editing by Paul Taylor and David Stamp)