PARIS French Socialist presidential candidate Francois Hollande will beat incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy in the May 6 second-round ballot with about 53 to 56 percent of the vote, according to polls conducted after the close of Sunday's first round.
Hollande won the first round with 28.46 percent of the vote to 27.06 percent for Sarkozy - with 95 percent of the votes counted - making it essential for both to win over voters from eliminated candidates in order to emerge triumphant in runoff in two weeks.
Battling to convince voters he is the best man to lead France to economic recovery after four years of crisis, Sarkozy faces an uphill battle for a second term against Hollande, a mainstream social-democrat who has never held a cabinet minister job.
Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen injected an unexpected dose of uncertainty into the final round by securing a record 18.23 percent of the first-round vote.
Despite the strong showing of the far-right, a CSA poll found that Hollande would beat Sarkozy with a comfortable lead, securing as much as 56 percent of the votes in the second round.
Pollsters Ifop-Fiducial gave Hollande 54.5 percent while Ipsos and Harris Interactive found he would get 54 percent. A BVA poll put Hollande at 53 percent.
Pollsters Ipsos found that as much 60 percent of Le Pen's supporters would vote for Sarkozy in the second round, while Ifop-Fiducial found only 48 percent would, although 21 percent would either not vote or not say what they would do.
Most voters for hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who came in fourth place in the first round with 10.9 percent, are set to back Hollande.
People who backed centrist Francois Bayrou, who came in fifth with 9.2 percent, had a slight preference for Sarkozy over Hollande, according to the Ifop and BVA polls.
However, the CSA poll found that 40 percent of Bayrou's voters would back Hollande in the runoff and only 25 percent would vote for Sarkozy.
The first-round results leave Sarkozy in the tricky position of having to conduct a campaign aimed at winning over voters on the far-right and in the centre who could be tempted by Hollande.
All the polls were conducted for various French media shortly after the results of the first round were made public.
(Reporting by Leigh Thomas; editing by Geert De Clercq)