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French vote shaping up as two-horse race

PARIS (Reuters) - France’s presidential election looked increasingly like a two-horse race on Tuesday, with frontrunners rightist Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Segolene Royal battling for supremacy while other candidates lost ground.

French Socialist Party presidential candidate Segolene Royal gestures between Jean-Marc Ayrault (L), Jean-Marc Ayrault, head of the Socialist parliamentary group, and Regional Leader Jacques Auxiette at the end of her political rally in Nantes, western France, April 16, 2007. REUTERS/Daniel Joubert

An opinion poll published in le Parisien daily suggested Sarkozy and Royal would cruise past their rivals in the April 22 first round vote and then tie in a run-off ballot on May 6.

Sarkozy, a tough-talking former interior minister, has led Royal in recent weeks and the CSA poll was the first to put the two on level terms since March 21.

However, other polls over the past four days have suggested that between 30 and 40 percent of voters were still not fully decided, meaning an upset could still jolt French politics.

Looking to seize the initiative, Royal promised on Tuesday to be a frugal president if elected and sweep away some of the regal excesses that have helped distance French leaders from their increasingly disgruntled voters in recent years.

“We must end this monarchic drift which consists in believing that a head of state can spend public money without control or limit,” Royal said, adding the president’s budget had risen by almost 800 percent between 1995 and 2006.

Royal, who wants to become France’s first woman president, has had trouble asserting her credibility during the campaign and pollsters have warned that many undecided voters might spurn her in favour of the centrist candidate Francois Bayrou.

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However, political analysts said these voters would swing behind Royal, despite persisting doubts over her high-spending manifesto proposals, if they thought she could beat Sarkozy.

“If other surveys show she can beat him, Bayrou is dead. The left will totally vote for Royal,” said Paul Bacot, an analyst at the Sciences Po university faculty in the city of Lyon.

UNCOMPROMISING

The presidential election has increasingly become a referendum on Sarkozy, whose uncompromising line on immigration and crime appeals to many on the right, but whose high-octane personality has been vilified by opponents.

Posters of a smiling Sarkozy have been systematically defaced on billboards across France, while the images of the other 11 candidates have largely been left untouched.

France finds itself at the crossroads after 12 years of rule by the outgoing centre-right president Jacques Chirac, and whoever replaces him will have to tackle perennially high unemployment, deep social tensions and steep national debt.

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With the stakes so high, voters have been following the campaign closely. Liberation newspaper published a poll showing 67 percent of French people were engaged by the 2007 debate.

By contrast, only 42 percent of people had said they were interested just ahead of the 2002 election -- a climate of indifference that eventually helped far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen beat the Socialist candidate and finish a shock second.

Recent surveys have shown Le Pen, who is fiercely opposed to immigration, anchored in fourth place this time around, with the CSA poll seeing him at 15.5 percent on April 22, against 27 percent for Sarkozy, 25 percent for Royal and 19 for Bayrou.

An IPSOS poll for Le Point magazine published on Tuesday showed Le Pen on 14 percent, Bayrou on 18.5 percent, Royal on 25 and Sarkozy on 28.5.

However, voters have traditionally been reluctant to admit backing Le Pen, making his rating very hard to gauge, and he is convinced he will make it into the second round again.

Additional reporting by Kerstin Gehmlich

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