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Carrots might be cooked for Sarkozy as Hollande gets a presidential look

Polls show Socialist candidate set for landslide win against President. By John Lichfield in Lille

Confronted with plunging polls and deserting allies, President Nicolas Sarkozy faces the prospect of a rout in the two-round election starting this weekend, with senior members of his government already said to be certain of defeat.

Supporters of the front-running Socialist candidate, François Hollande could scarcely contain their euphoria when they gathered in Lille for their last big rally on Tuesday night before French electors go to the polls on Sunday. They interrupted the candidate's speech endlessly with chants of "François president!" "You are well informed," Mr Hollande quipped. "It is possible we are going to win."

New polls suggested Mr Hollande, 57, was leading the field in the first round with up to 29 per cent of the vote. In voting intentions for the two-candidate second round in May, he now leads the President by a "landslide" margin of 14 to 16 per cent.

In a series of damning, private remarks, reported by the Le Canard Enchainé newspaper, senior members of Sarkozy's government said that defeat now seemed inevitable. "The carrots are cooked," the Prime Minister, François Fillon was quoted as saying.

The former centre-right prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, was reported to have said privately: "There is no chance of us winning." The President, pictured inset, has also suffered a series of symbolic desertions. It was reported earlier this week that former President Jacques Chirac intended to switch sides and vote for Mr Hollande.

A clutch of former Sarkozy ministers and supporters, from the right, left and centre of French politics, have also declared that they will vote for the Socialist candidate. The President has fought an energetic but erratic campaign. He began by warning that France needed tough medicine to escape recession, urging the French to be more frugal and to work harder, like the Germans. But he then switched to a hard-right message to reclaim votes from Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader.

Mr Sarkozy's sharp right turn propelled him into a narrow lead in first round opinion polls but that support now appears to have dribbled back to Ms Le Pen. Through all these twists and turns, the Socialist front-runner, Mr Hollande, has held his nerve.

Still, the merits and limitations of "Hollandism" were apparent. The crowd of 15,000 (not the expected 20,000) cheered his rhetoric against "big finance" but got fidgety as Mr Hollande explained the minutiae of his plans. The attending Socialist top brass were two steps ahead of Mr Hollande. Their chatter was not about the first or second rounds but the "third round": who would be "in" and who would be "out" in the first centre-left government for a decade. The favourite to be Mr Hollande's prime minister is the Socialist party leader, Martine Aubry, the daughter of former European commission president Jacques Delors.

Animosity between the pair is legendary. Mr Hollande and Ms Aubry briefly held up one another's arms to salute the Lille rally. However, their body language suggested the choice of Prime Minister is not yet decided.