PARIS French President Nicolas Sarkozy's re-election hopes suffered a double setback four days from the first round of voting when a string of public defections compounded the impression that his tumble in opinion polls is pushing victory beyond reach.
Former town planning minister Fadela Amara joined a growing list of political figures to desert the conservative Sarkozy and announce they will vote for his arch-rival, Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande.
That followed the most devastating opinion poll for weeks, which showed Hollande has opened a five-point lead over Sarkozy in the first ballot next Sunday, and the Socialist has a yawning 16-point advantage in voting intentions for the May 6 runoff.
After a week of steady poll gains for Hollande, the CSA survey released on Thursday night gave him 29 percent of the first round vote, up two points from the institute's previous survey, versus 24 percent for Sarkozy, down two points.
Sarkozy put on a brave face when asked during an interview on BFM TV what he thought of the latest poll showing Hollande on course to become the first Socialist president since Francois Mitterrand left office in 1995.
"There's not much point in commenting (on the polls) when they're good and then commenting on the others because they're bad," he said.
Amara, one of the left-of-centre figures Sarkozy recruited to government in the first years after his 2007 election, joined Corinne Lepage, an ecologist former environment minister in a previous centre-right government, who said she would back Hollande because Sarkozy had lurched too far to the right.
Sarkozy's conservative predecessor Jacques Chirac, 79, is also planning to vote for Hollande, according to the man who helped him write an autobiography after 12 years as head of state from 1995 until 2007. Sarkozy said people should leave the old man in peace and not "manipulate" him.
Others who have said they will vote Hollande despite having served in office under Sarkozy or Chirac include former high commissioner on poverty Martin Hirsch, equal opportunities junior minister Azouz Begag and former culture minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon.
Sarkozy's poll standing improved in the weeks following the launch of his re-election campaign in mid-February and at one stage most surveys showed him topping the first round, but not a single poll has shown Hollande losing the runoff.
In the past week however, Hollande has recovered and Sarkozy slipped in almost all polls. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen has strengthened her position in third place with 17 percent in the CSA poll, followed by hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon on 15 percent and centrist Francois Bayrou on 10.
Bayrou, who has not said whom he back if as expected he is eliminated on Sunday's first ballot, played down the defectors to Hollande as "those who always want their hands on the lever, to be on side with the powers that be".
"You can't build a country with people who are here one day and there the next," he said.
Asked whether he might announce between the two rounds his intention to appoint Bayrou prime minister if re-elected, Sarkozy said: "I'm waiting to see the first round and I tell you that it's not impossible that I'll do that."
Hollande warned his supporters against complacency or prematurely carving up government posts and reaffirmed in a France Inter radio interview that he would renegotiate a European budget discipline treaty to give priority to restoring growth, without which it would be impossible to reduce debt.
(Additional reporting By Brian Love, Leigh Thomas, Emmanuel Jarry, Yann Le Guernigou and Patrick Vignal; Editing by Paul Taylor)