Sarkozy's playing dirty, says leader who's soaring in polls (but can't get on the ballot)

Marine Le Pen claims she's being blocked to boost President's re-election hopes

President Nicolas Sarkozy's chances of re-election this spring will boom if the far right candidate, Marine Le Pen, is locked out of the race, according to a poll published yesterday.

The poll triggered claims from the far right of an "undemocratic" conspiracy by Mr Sarkozy's party, the UMP, to deny Ms Le Pen the 500 official signatures needed to make the first round ballot on 22 April. So far, the National Front (NF) leader has 352 promises from village mayors and elected officials and is struggling to find new sponsors before a 16 March deadline, despite almost 20 per cent support in the polls.

At a rally in Toulose last night, Ms Le Pen said she would not let the "clique" of mainstream parties give her "lessons on democracy...It's not me they're scared of. It's you, the French people, that they are trying to silence."

Centre-right and Socialist politicians said Ms Le Pen was not gathering signatures due to "extreme" and "absurd" statements and xenophobic and anti-European policies. Others claimed she was lying about the number of sponsors in order to seem a "victim of the system".

A poll for the Journal du Dimanche found yesterday that Mr Sarkozy would draw level with Socialist front-runner, François Hollande, if Ms Le Pen was barred from the race. Without her name on the ballot paper, the poll found Mr Sarkozy and Mr Hollande would each attract 33 per cent of the first round vote. If the far right was present, Mr Hollande would score 29.5 per cent, Mr Sarkozy 24.5 per cent and Ms Le Pen 19 per cent.

Only two candidates proceed to the second round on 6 May – so a surge in support for Ms Pen could knock out the President in the first round. The NF has been alleging for weeks that Mr Sarkozy's centre-right party has arm-twisted non-aligned or independent local politicians to dissuade them from signing the sponsorship forms. The NF's deputy leader, Louis Aliot, who is also Ms Le Pen's romantic partner, said the new poll proved the only way Nicolas Sarkozy could reach the second round was by shutting out the far right. Ms Le Pen's exclusion from the election would be an "extravagantly dangerous event for democracy," he said.

The system of "parrainages" or sponsorships, is to prevent the ballot paper from being choked with obscure candidates. At least 15 men and women have declared their intention to run this spring.

About nine (against 12 in 2007) look to have a chance of raising 500 signatures. More than 42,000 people – from village mayors to the President – are eligible to sign the forms. The NF only has a total of 118 elected officials, so it relies on "independent" or "non-aligned" mayors.

The far right says the ruling party, the UMP, has been threatening financial reprisals against mayors who sponsor Ms Le Pen. But some help may be on the way for Ms Le Pen. The constitutional and government watchdogs are set to rule by 22 February on whether the names of sponsors should be kept secret.