Despondent Sarkozy faces his final reckoning

The President's team is still talking up the possibility of a narrow lead in tomorrow's first round of voting, but John Lichfield finds little to suggest his campaign has won over a sceptical electorate

A final batch of opinion polls yesterday offered scant encouragement to President Nicolas Sarkozy before the first round of the French presidential election tomorrow.

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The President's supporters say that low turnout, polling errors and last-minute changes of mind could still propel Mr Sarkozy into a narrow lead when the scores of the 10 first-round candidates are counted tomorrow evening.

Three out of five polls before the multi-candidate stage of the campaign officially ended at midnight last night showed the Socialist challenger, François Hollande, increasing his narrow first-round lead over the President. All polls showed him winning a crushing victory over Mr Sarkozy by up to 14 points in the two-candidate second round in two weeks' time.

President Sarkozy's campaign team accepts that he must top the first-round field tomorrow to make him appear a "winner" and gain the necessary momentum to overhaul Mr Hollande before 6 May. They insist that opinion pollsters are missing a "hidden" layer of Sarkozy supporters who dare not openly voice their choice. But this amounts to an admission that President Sarkozy has deeply alienated a broad section of the electorate in the past five years.

Mr Sarkozy has fought a passionate campaign but he has also zigzagged between hard-right and statesmanlike poses, and made baseless claims. The harder he has campaigned, the more he has reminded some voters of what they disliked in his presidency.

In a final flurry of radio interviews and a rally in Nice yesterday, Mr Sarkozy mixed contrition with aggression. He acknowledged that he had not behaved with sufficient decorum in his first year in office when his popularity plunged and never fully recovered.

But the President also lambasted Mr Hollande as a soft and inexperienced candidate, who would lead France and Europe to economic catastrophe. In the past year, Mr Sarkozy said, he had rescued the euro from meltdown and reduced France's budget deficit. If Mr Hollande was elected, France would "share the fate of Spain", he said.

"What has [Hollande] achieved?" Mr Sarkozy asked. "For 10 years he was head of the Socialist party. He wasn't the head of very much."

The Socialist candidate, who spent the day campaigning in the north of France in Champagne-Ardennes, paraded his presidential qualities. Mr Hollande said that, if elected, he would send French troops to Syria so long as the United Nations Security Council agreed an international intervention.

Much will depend tomorrow on turnout and the late choices of voters hesitating between mainstream and populist candidates.

The final batch of opinion polls had an unusual symmetry. Mr Hollande was given 27 to 30 per cent of the first-round vote and Mr Sarkozy 27 to 25 per cent. The far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, (14-17 per cent) was scrapping for third place with the hard-left candidate, Jan-Luc Mélenchon (12-14.5 per cent).

A last-minute migration of voters to or from the extremist candidates of left or right could alter the finishing position of the two leading candidates. Topping the first-round poll would give Mr Sarkozy a vital boost, but would not necessarily change the outcome on 6 May.

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