France gears up for Sunday's presidential vote

Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy still a favorite to advance to a winner-takes-all runoff; will likely face Socialist Segolene Royal.

sarkozy 298.88 (photo credit: )
sarkozy 298.88
(photo credit: )
France's volatile presidential campaign wound down Friday with conservative Nicolas Sarkozy still a favorite to advance to a winner-takes-all runoff. The big question was who he would face. Socialist Segolene Royal, striving to become France's first woman president, seemed his likeliest rival. But the French have confounded pollsters before, and polls show millions of voters have not fully made up their minds for Sunday's first round, so surprises could await as to who reaches the May 6 runoff. All 12 candidates were required to halt campaigning by midnight. Early voting gets under way Saturday in some French overseas territories, with mainland France casting ballots Sunday. Europe's most-watched election this year will determine who takes the helm of a nuclear-armed nation with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council after 12 years under President Jacques Chirac. Sarkozy, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is often perceived as pro-American. Such a duo in charge of Paris and Berlin would signal change from the era of Chirac and former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who had chilly relations with Washington, mainly over the Iraq war. France is looking for new direction, down on its economic fortunes, adrift in its identity, and still coping with fallout from youth riots in poor, immigrant areas in 2005. A poll released Friday by TNS Sofres Unilog said Sarkozy would garner 28 percent Sunday, followed by Royal at 24 percent and center-right hopeful Francois Bayrou at 19.5 percent. Ultra-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen came in at 14 percent. An Ipsos poll put Sarkozy at 30 percent, Royal at 23 percent, Bayrou at 18 percent and Le Pen at 13 percent. Both showed the rest of the field tallying low single-digit percentages. In the runoff, TNS Sofres' poll said Sarkozy would win with 53 percent, compared with Royal's 47%; Ipsos had Sarkozy at 53.5% and Royal at 46.5%. Those agencies polled between 1,000 and 1,200 adults this week. Polls of such size usually have a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. More than two in five were toggling between two or three candidates or entirely uncertain about who to vote for, TNS Sofres said. Ipsos did not calculate such data, but said that only 55% of supporters of Bayrou were firm about their choice of him, the lowest tally among the four leading contenders to make the second round. Frederic Daby, a director of the IFOP polling agency, said there were two main camps of undecided voters: one choosing between Sarkozy and Le Pen, the other between Royal and Bayrou. "It's entirely possible that we have one or two big surprises, because we've rarely had such a high undecided rate," he said. "It's not undecided in the sense of 'I don't care about politics' or 'I'm not sure,' there are just a lot of people hesitating." Across the country, jobs are voters' No. 1 concern, polls show. Recognizing that, top candidates have reached out to Airbus workers facing massive job cuts, and railed against exorbitant executive pay. But the campaign focus never stayed on jobs, instead switching to school choice, attacking the European Central Bank, then to cracking down on youth rampaging in a Paris train station. In recent weeks, the most enduring campaign theme was French identity, a favored issue of Le Pen, and one that Sarkozy has sought to poach. Some of the top contenders wanted to be everything for everybody, plucking ideas and tactics from rival camps and blurring the lines in France's traditional left-right divide. Voter registration is up everywhere, especially in poor suburbs where largely Muslim and African immigrants and their French-born children live in forgotten housing projects, and up to half the youth are jobless. The second round was shaping up as a referendum on Sarkozy, a figure of discord. His frankness, energy and free-market values are adored on the right, but his tough talk against suburban troublemakers has gone down badly with many immigrants' children. The left fears that his years as a tough interior minister, France's top cop, make him ill-suited for the job as its top diplomat, and the wrong answer for millions of people worried about job security. "Sarkozy represents a danger to our nation in terms of political, economic and social issues," said rapper Khalifa Belouzaa, 33. "In this time of trouble, in this time of misery and unemployment, this man just works for the rich to be richer and the poor to be poorer." Overall, Sarkozy, who has long ogled the presidency and has reportedly acknowledged that he is his own worst enemy, has avoided any major slip-ups. Recently, he has sought to portray himself more as a unifier and has talked less about national identity. On Monday, he went to the revered Gen. Charles de Gaulle's tomb. "I want a tolerant society in which everybody listens to one another," Sarkozy told RTL radio Friday. In a final flurry of personal sniping, Royal took aim at Sarkozy again: "I'm stunned to see how much Nicolas Sarkozy talks incessantly about himself," she told France-Inter radio.