PARIS - Campaigning ended on Saturday in France for a decisive second-round presidential vote expected to crown Francois Hollande the country's first Socialist leader in two decades despite polls showing President Nicolas Sarkozy clawing back some ground.
Sunday's election, which coincides with parliamentary polls in Greece, may prove decisive for the direction of Europe as Hollande has promised he will try to temper a German-led austerity drive across Europe and reorientate the recession-struck euro zone towards growth.
Sarkozy, who became the first sitting president of modern times to finish second in a presidential first round vote, must overcome high disapproval rates because of his abrasive style.
If he did win, it would be a political sensation after a whirlwind campaign by the man many voters blame for stubbornly high unemployment, running at a 12-year high of nearly 10 percent, and France's stagnant economy.
Sarkozy was due to spend Saturday at home in Paris with his wife, former supermodel Carla Bruni, while Hollande visited a market in Tulle, the town in central France where he was mayor for seven years.
"I am nervous, anxious for victory," Hollande told a Reuters television reporter, as he shook hands with stall holders and kissed female well-wishers. "The inhabitants of Tulle won't miss me ... They will be reassured to have me as president."
Sarkozy made an impassioned final plea to France's 46 million voters on Friday, saying the election's outcome was balanced on a "razor's edge". He warned that a Socialist victory could send the euro zone's second largest economy spiralling into rising deficits and debt, like Greece.
Final polls before a mandatory media blackout on campaigning from midnight on Friday showed the 57-year-old conservative leader, an aggressive campaigner, cutting Hollande's lead to just four points from around 10 a few weeks ago.
"On Sunday, anything is possible" wrote left-leaning Liberation on its front page, noting that while Hollande remained the clear favorite, Sarkozy was catching up fast.
The election campaign was knocked sideways by a shock performance by National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, who came third in the April 22 first round with 18 percent of votes, prompting Sarkozy to shift his campaign rhetoric to the right.
The president received a double setback this week when Le Pen refused to endorse him, saying she preferred to cast a blank vote, and centrist candidate Francois Bayrou, who came fifth in the first round with 9 percent, said he would vote for Hollande.
In a scathing personal attack, Bayrou accused Sarkozy of betraying the principles of the Republic by courting the far right with anti-European and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
On the quiet streets of Paris, passersby on Saturday said the vote was likely to be much closer than many had expected.
"Unfortunately, Sarkozy still has a chance of winning," said Amandine, a young woman shopping in central Paris. "There are a lot of people who are still undecided. They haven't made up their minds, so it could be him."
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