France enters last week of campaign, race still open

16th April 2007, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, April 16, 2007 (AFP) - France entered its last week of campaigning for the first round of the presidential election Sunday, with right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy the clear leader in the polls but still far from certain of ultimate victory.

PARIS, April 16, 2007 (AFP) - France entered its last week of campaigning for the first round of the presidential election Sunday, with right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy the clear leader in the polls but still far from certain of ultimate victory.

The head of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) has come top in 102 out of 104 surveys taken since January, consistently outperforming the Socialist Party's (PS) Segolene Royal, the centrist Francois Bayrou and veteran National Front (FN) leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.

However with some 40 percent of the electorate still undecided, analysts said the balance of opinion may be more fluid than it seems -- with much depending on who qualifies with Sarkozy for the all-important May 6 second round.

While Royal is most likely to make it through to the two-way run-off, she is only a few points ahead of Bayrou in round one polls, while Le Pen -- in fourth place -- says his support is underestimated because far-right voters tend to dissimulate to pollsters.

In the 2002 election Le Pen transfixed the world when he qualified for the second round -- despite surveys that had regularly shown him behind the Socialist Lionel Jospin.

France is to choose a successor to 74-year-old President Jacques Chirac, in an election that is widely seen as the most exciting and important in a quarter of a century.

All candidates agree that the country is malfunctioning, locked in a downward spiral thanks to massive public debt, 8.5 percent unemployment, low income levels, and seething discontent in the high-immigration suburbs that were the scene of riots in 2005.

Sarkozy, 52, has promised a remedy based on a "clean break" from past governments of left and right -- offering a liberalised economy, restrictions on trade union powers and affirmative action to help disadvantaged black and Arab-origin populations.

However he has been vehemently attacked by Royal and Bayrou, who accuse him of veering to the far-right to tempt voters for Le Pen. Enemies say he is a divisive character who has no chance of uniting the country behind the reforms he says are needed.

Aware that the best hope of keeping out Sarkozy lies in maximising the opposition vote in round two, some supporters of Royal and Bayrou have discreetly aired the idea of an electoral deal.

PS elder statesman Michel Rocard issued a public appeal for a pact in Saturday's edition of Le Monde newspaper, saying that "nothing essential separates socialists and centrists ... If we do not take this opportunity we will have no excuse."

The plea was seconded Sunday by Bernard Kouchner, a former Socialist health minister, who said: "For the first time in 30 years Francois Bayrou's party does not reject the reformist left. Let us seize this chance."

The idea was welcomed by Bayrou, head of the small Union for French Democracy (UDF), who said "things are moving", but it was rejected by Francois Hollande -- PS first secretary and Royal's partner -- who said there could be "no conceivable alliance between the left and a party of the right."

Bayrou, 55, has positioned himself as a candidate who rejects the left-right divide, but since its creation in 1978 his party has been in almost permanent alliance with the right.

Analysts said that Royal, 53, needs to maintain her left-wing credentials ahead of the first round in order to stop votes leaking to far-left candidates. But she has to keep a door open to Bayrou in the hope of an endorsement from his camp if she qualifies for round two.

The Socialist candidate can hope to benefit from memories of 2002, when the leakage of votes to the far-left brought down Jospin. Many on the left will choose a "useful vote" for Royal in order to prevent a repeat, analysts predicted.

However her danger lay in polls that show that only Bayrou has a chance -- and a good one -- of beating Sarkozy in round two. Voters concerned about keeping out Sarkozy could prefer Bayrou on April 22 if they decide Royal cannot win on May 6.

Twelve candidates are running in the first round, including three Trotskyites, a Communist, a Green and anti-capitalist campaigner Jose Bove. Also taking part are a hunters' rights campaigner and Catholic nationalist Philippe de Villiers.


Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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