France wraps up campaign for round one of election
PARIS, April 19, 2007 (AFP) - The 12 men and women jostling to become France's next president on Thursday wrapped up their campaigns to sway millions of undecided voters ahead of round one of this cliffhanger election.
They all promise to bring change but offer radically different solutions to address high unemployment, a huge public debt and simmering tensions in high-immigrant suburbs that exploded into rioting in late 2005.
Nicolas Sarkozy’s tough talk about getting France back to work looked set to put him in pole position after Sunday’s first round, but his ultimate victory was still far from certain.
The rightwinger faces a strong challenge from the Socialist Segolene Royal who wants to become France’s first woman president, while centrist Francois Bayrou could still spring a surprise from his third place position in the polls.
With more than one in three voters still undecided, the election was seen as too close to call.
Far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, in fourth position in the polls, was confident he could repeat the electoral upset of 2002 when he beat Socialist contender Lionel Jospin to square off against Jacques Chirac in the runoff.
Sarkozy was due in the Mediterranean city of Marseille for a final rally ahead of the official end of campaigning at midnight on Friday, with Le Pen further along the coast in Nice, while Royal and Bayrou were respectively headed for the southwestern cities of Toulouse and Pau.
The other contenders, ranging from a Trotskyite postman to a hunting party candidate, were holding meetings in various parts of France.
They have practically no chance of winning, but their vote-splitting potential gives them importance in Sunday’s first round. And their instructions to their voters after the first round will have a vital effect on who ultimately wins the presidency on May 6.
The polls show that former interior minister Sarkozy, 52, is almost guaranteed a spot in the run-off but Royal, 53, could lose to Bayrou, 55, if her voters decide that he stands a better chance of beating Sarkozy in the second round.
Some 44.5 million eligible voters are choosing a successor to Chirac who is stepping down after 12 years in office and has endorsed Sarkozy as the candidate of his governing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party.
The new president will also face the task of reconnecting France to Europe after a majority of voters rejected a referendum on a new EU constitution in 2005, slamming the brakes on the construction of the new Europe.
The election will usher in a new younger generation of leaders and could mark a turning point for a nation that is unsure of its future and profoundly distrusts politicians.
The son of a Hungarian immigrant, Sarkozy is promising a “clean break” with the politics of the past with promises of lowering unemployment, now at 8.4 percent, stimulating growth with tax incentives, and restoring the value of hard work.
His call for a ministry of education and national identity has been criticised as a ploy to steal votes from the far-right by promising to teach Arab and African immigrants on how to be French.
But his tough-guy image acquired during his two stints as interior minister has proven to be his biggest political liability as polls show voters fear him.
Royal has seized on doubts over Sarkozy’s personality to present herself as a “calm strength” against the rightwinger’s “brutality” and has vowed to protect and improve the social security net.
But she is battling doubts as to whether she has the gravitas needed to hold the position of head of state.
Campaigning as an outsider, Bayrou promises to bring down the “Berlin Wall” of the left-right divide in French politics by creating a unity government made up of moderates from both sides.
A poll released Thursday showed that 30 percent of voters had chosen Sarkozy, while a second survey put his score at 29 percent.
The two polls, from the Ipsos and BVA agencies, put Royal at 23.5 percent and 25 percent respectively. They put Bayrou at 18.5 percent and 15 percent, while Le Pen had 13 percent of voting intentions in both polls.
Voting starts Saturday for some 882,000 citizens who live in overseas departments and for the 820,000 expatriates who want to vote in embassies and consulates abroad.
Polls open at 8 am (0600 GMT) on Sunday in mainland France, with the first results expected shortly after the closure of voting stations at 8 pm (1800 GMT).
Subject: French news