French presidential rivals make final pleas

20th April 2007, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, April 20, 2007 (AFP) - Rivals for the French presidency made their final appeals to millions of undecided voters Friday as the official campaign came to an end ahead of an election seen as too close to call.

PARIS, April 20, 2007 (AFP) - Rivals for the French presidency made their final appeals to millions of undecided voters Friday as the official campaign came to an end ahead of an election seen as too close to call.

Rightwing contender Nicolas Sarkozy led in opinion polls ahead of Socialist Segolene Royal, aiming to become France's first woman president, but both sides feared a surprise in Sunday's voting from centrist Francois Bayrou.

The 12 candidates have until midnight Friday (2200 GMT) to make their pitch to voters and the top contenders criss-crossed the country for the final hours of lobbying.

An Ifop poll released on Friday showed Sarkozy in the lead for the first round with 28 percent of votes, ahead of Royal at 22.5 percent. Bayrou was at 20 percent and far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen at 13 percent.

This campaign has been "a test of truth for me," said the 52-year-old Sarkozy before more than 12,000 cheering supporters at his final rally in the Mediterranean city of Marseille late Thursday.

Struggling to shed a tough-guy image, the former interior minister spoke of the "insults and lies" that have been directed at him.

"To unite the French people, to be able to speak on their behalf, to be able to govern, you must be able to love," said Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant who has promised a "clean break" with the politics of the past.

Royal, a 53-year-old former adviser to late socialist president Francois Mitterrand, attacked Sarkozy in a television interview in which she said France "did not want this type (of candidate) who pits the French people against each other."

Appealing to "those who are still considering their choice", Royal pledged to ensure that "human values come before the value of the stock market" at her final rally in the southwestern city of Toulouse.

Bayrou, 55, also took a swipe at his conservative rival's hardline on immigration and building up a national identity. Speaking in his hometown of Pau in the southwest, Bayrou said he was concerned by rising tensions in France.

"I want France to be secure and calmed," said Bayrou late Thursday.

With polls showing that Sarkozy is almost guaranteed a place in the run-off on May 6, the first round has largely come down to a battle for second place between Royal and Bayrou.

But with one in three voters still undecided, the election is seen as one of the most unpredictable ever.

Sarkozy is disliked by many young people in poor suburbs where the former interior minister is accused of introducing oppressive police methods and fueling tensions that led to riots that hit France in late 2005.

Campaign posters of all the candidates have been defaced, but reports suggest that Sarkozy's have had the most attacks, with Hitler moustaches drawn on his face and devil's horns on his head.

The main contenders are all promising to bring change to France but offer radically different solutions to high unemployment, huge public debt and simmering tensions in high-immigrant suburbs.

Some 44.5 million voters are eligible to vote for a successor to President Jacques Chirac who is stepping down after 12 years in office and has endorsed Sarkozy.

The election will usher in a new younger generation of leaders and could mark a turning point for a nation unsure of its future and of its place in the world, and profoundly disillusioned with politicians.

Polls however show that Royal could lose to Bayrou, if her voters decide that he stands a better chance of beating Sarkozy in the second round.

Le Pen, who shocked France in 2002 when he beat the Socialist contender Lionel Jospin to square off against Chirac in the runoff, predicted that a "great national wave will sweep away the oligarchy" in power during his final rally in the Riviera city of Nice.

Voting starts Saturday for some 882,000 citizens in overseas departments and for the 820,000 expatriates who can vote in embassies and consulates abroad.

Polls open at 8:00 am (0600 GMT) on Sunday in mainland France, with the first results expected shortly after voting stations close at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT).

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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