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French candidates make final campaign push

PARIS (Reuters) - France’s presidential candidates made a final push for support on Friday ahead of Sunday’s first round ballot, with most final polls giving right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy the edge over his main rival, Socialist Segolene Royal.

France's Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal (C), flanked by Paris' mayor Bertrand Delanoe (L) and Pierre Schapira (R), deputy mayor in charge of Foreign Affairs, visits the Montorgueil street market as she campaigns in Paris, April 20, 2007. France's Presidential candidates began their last day of campaigning on Friday before Sunday's first round ballot, making a final push for support in the vote. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

But with millions of voters undecided, neither frontrunner was taking anything for granted after months of fierce political battles that have focused as much on personality as policy.

“There are 24 hours left in which the French are going to reflect. They know they are going to write a very important page in the history of France,” said Royal, who is seeking to become France’s first woman president.

A campaign blackout and poll embargo came into force at midnight on Friday and the final flurry of opinion surveys provided mixed messages to all four leading candidates.

The BVA and Ipsos institutes showed Royal had continued to narrow the gap slightly on Sarkozy but forecast that the former interior minister would go on to win a May 6 run-off against the Socialist by 52 percent and 53.5 percent respectively.

However, a CSA poll for the Le Parisien daily made the race a dead heat and put far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in third place ahead of centrist Francois Bayrou.

Polling stations open on Sunday after a day for reflection on Saturday with a dozen candidates seeking election. If, as expected, no one wins an absolute majority on Sunday the top two will contest a second round ballot two weeks later.

NEW GENERATION

Sarkozy has led the opinion polls for months, but Royal has narrowed the gap and analysts say both centrist Francois Bayrou and far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen could yet cause an upset.

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In 2002, Le Pen stunned France by knocking out the Socialist candidate to win a place in the run-off against sitting President Jacques Chirac, who secured a comprehensive victory.

Chirac, the last survivor of a political class formed by World War Two General Charles de Gaulle, is retiring after 12 years in power, while the poll frontrunners are in their early 50s, promising a generational change at the top of France.

The election campaign has run against a background of fears over jobs, immigration and security, with memories of riots in France’s deprived suburbs in 2005 still fresh in the memory.

There was a reminder of the potential for further trouble when camera crews filming at one of the flashpoints of the 2005 violence near Paris were assaulted and robbed.

Police say no special precautions have been ordered for polling day beyond standard voter station security measures. But officials could ban the purchase of petrol in jerry cans -- a measure imposed during the 2005 riots -- if warranted.

“COVERED IN SCARS”

The candidates’ final appearances had heavy symbolic overtones, with Sarkozy riding a horse through a bull farm in the south, Royal at a trendy street market in Paris and Bayrou at a World War One memorial in Verdun.

“I have loved the campaign passionately and I’ve fought it with intensity,” Sarkozy told reporters in the picturesque Camargue region.

The battle has increasingly focused on personalities over the past month -- especially that of Sarkozy, who has been vilified as a dangerous, divisive force.

A law-and-order hardliner and, by French standards, a free-marketeer, he has tried to build a more soothing image, with tributes to figures like civil rights leader Martin Luther King and Pope John Paul II. But he has been hurt by the attacks.

“I am covered in scars,” he told Le Parisien daily.

Royal, an economic left-winger with a strong line in traditional social values, has presented herself as a healing force for a divided France.

But she has had a rocky campaign, facing constant questions over her competence following a series of foreign policy gaffes.

Both she and Sarkozy have lambasted corporate greed and criticised the European Central Bank for letting the euro climb to painful heights for exporters.

Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry and Jean-Baptiste Vey

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