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.
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