French candidates make final campaign push

Other News Materials 20 April 2007 13:39 (UTC +04:00)

( Reuters ) - 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 a vote that will usher in a new generation of political leadership.

Right wing former interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy has maintained a consistent lead in the opinion polls, but Socialist Segolene Royal has narrowed the gap over recent days.

After months of campaigning, a blackout on campaign speeches and opinion polls from midnight on Friday night will impose a "day of reflection" on Saturday before the polls open on Sunday.

Despite indications that as many as 40 percent of voters had not finally made up their mind, all the surveys indicated that Sarkozy and Royal would contest a second round runoff on May 6.

But after the shock of the last election in 2002, when veteran far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen knocked out the Socialist Lionel Jospin and came second behind sitting President Jacques Chirac, no-one is ruling out surprises.

"I call on all voters to come out massively in the first round," Royal told France Inter radio on Friday.

Chirac, the last political survivor of a generation formed by World War Two General Charles de Gaulle, is retiring after 12 years in power, and the poll favorites are all in their 50s.

The candidates held their last rallies on Thursday night, pledging to unite France behind them, Sarkozy borrowing from U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King and Royal hosting Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

With memories of 2005 riots in poor suburbs still fresh and an unemployment rate the highest in the euro zone, jobs, crime and immigration have been the main concerns of the campaign.

But personality has been uppermost in many voters' minds and Sarkozy, in particular, has come under sustained attack from rivals who branded him as a dangerous authoritarian.

Sarkozy, a law-and-order hardliner and the most economically liberal of the candidates, won many admirers with his tough crackdown on the 2005 riots but his hyperactive character worries many voters.

Reflecting the increasingly aggressive tone of the campaign, Sarkozy told Le Parisien daily: "I am covered in scars."

"All those, who try to say that about me today are, in some way, fascists," he said. "Fascism is caricaturing people instead of listening to what they are really saying."

Royal, who began on a high last year after beating the well-established male "elephants" of her own party, has had a rocky campaign, facing constant questions over her competence following a series of foreign policy gaffes and missteps.

But she has recovered ground in recent days, while the centrist Francois Bayrou, whose surge in the polls shook up the frontrunners earlier in the year, has tended to fade, despite a high degree of personal popularity.

A quartet of polls released on Thursday put support for Sarkozy at between 27-29 percent, Royal between 22.5-25 percent, Bayrou at 15-20 percent and Le Pen at 13-15.5 percent.

In an eventual head-to-head, Sarkozy was seen getting between 50-53 percent and Royal 47-50 percent. That is one or two percentage points less than Sarkozy was polling last week.

Final opinion polls are due on Friday evening.