Sarkozy's appeal to right-wing voters provides poll boost

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Nicolas Sarkozy's sharp right turn in the presidential election campaign appeared to draw blood yesterday when a poll suggested that he had taken a narrow first-round lead over his Socialist challenger.

However, Mr Sarkozy's first taste of victory was short-lived. Hours after the first poll by Ifop was published, it was the Socialist camp's turn to cheer as a TNS-Sofres survey showed François Hollande widening his first round lead over Mr Sarkozy to four points.

Although the Ifop poll still showed Mr Hollande cantering to victory in the second round on 6 May, it forecast that Mr Sarkozy had regained enough support from the hard right to seize a narrow lead in voting intentions in the first round on 22 April. In both surveys, Mr Hollande was predicted to win the two-candidate second round on 6 May by a landslide.

Both polls were taken on Monday, following President Sarkozy's rally near Paris on Sunday in which he placed hard right themes at the heart of his re-election campaign. The first poll was hailed by his campaign advisors as a vindication of his populist gamble, which in recent weeks has hijacked far right issues such as restrictions on halal meat. The second poll was claimed by Socialist campaign sources as proof that Mr Sarkozy's strategy had failed.

Any hopes in Mr Sarkozy's camp that the far right candidate, Marine Le Pen, might be forced out of the race on a technicality, were dispelled yesterday. Ms Le Pen announced that she had gathered the 500 endorsements she needs to reach the first round ballot paper on 22 April.

Another shadow also threatens Mr Sarkozy's reviving campaign. He reacted furiously when he was asked on live television on Monday night about a report that he had received €50m (£42m) in illegal campaign funding from the former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2007.

Mr Sarkozy described the report, which appeared on a left-wing investigative website, as "grotesque". But he may face awkward questions in coming days about two trips he made to Libya as a minister in 2005 as part of French negotiations to sell sophisticated spying equipment.

The Socialist challenger, Mr Hollande, has led in every poll for the first and second rounds of the election since he was selected by an open primary last October. Yesterday, an Ifop poll put Mr Sarkozy ahead in the first round with 28.5 per cent of the vote. Mr Hollande was slightly down at 27 per cent. Ms Le Pen fell back to 16 per cent. But in the two-candidate run-off the Ifop poll suggested Mr Hollande would beat Mr Sarkozy 55.5 per cent to 45.5 per cent.

The survey of 1,600 voters was taken after Mr Sarkozy's rally at Villepinte, north of Paris, on Sunday. In his hour-long speech to 40,000 activists, the President extended his populist rhetoric of recent weeks by threatening to pull out of the Schengen border-free area unless greater national control over immigration was restored within 12 months.

In late afternoon, the TNS-Sofres poll put Mr Hollande at 30 per cent in the first round and Mr Sarkozy at 26 per cent. In the second round, it estimated thee gap between them at 16 points - 58 per cent to 42 per cent.