Too close to call: French voters undecided about next President

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With 100 days to go before the country decides, Sarkozy is campaigning as an outsider

Paris

A hundred days before French voters go to the polls, the outcome of a tetchy presidential campaign, muddled by crisis, is defying all forecasts.

The Socialist challenger, François Hollande, leads in the opinion polls but President Nicolas Sarkozy has closed the first-round gap to only two points. Mr Sarkozy – now running at 25-26 per cent – is campaigning like an outsider who happens to be President, firing off new proposals on a daily basis. Not yet officially a candidate, he will probably declare early next month.

Mr Hollande, on 27-28 per cent, is placidly staking out his position as a more reliable, more caring reincarnation of the late President François Mitterrand – without the eloquence or, so far, any clear programme.

The far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, is running in third place with 17 to 20 per cent. She is surfing successfully on her moderate image and fears of national decline and economic calamity but does not appear, at this stage, likely to reach the two candidate second round.

If Ms Le Pen is to be believed, she may not even reach the first round. Her party, the National Front complained this week that pressure and threats from Mr Sarkozy's party meant she was struggling to gather the 500 signatures from elected officials that she needs to make the ballot paper on 22 April.

The perennial centrist challenger, François Bayrou is enjoying his usual January surge in the polls. The candidate of those who can stomach "none of the above", he has risen from single figures to around 15 per cent. As the only candidate in 2007 who warned of the dangers of debt, he is in the unusual position of being a convinced pro-European who stands to gain electorally if the euro falls apart in the next three months.

Predicting the outcome of the election is more than usually hazardous this year. The opinion polls suggest that Mr Hollande and Mr Sarkozy will reach the second round on 6 May and that Mr Hollande will then go on to win easily.

But much depends on what happens in Brussels and on the financial markets in coming weeks. If the euro, and the European and French economies, fall off a cliff, all bets could be off.

Ms Le Pen, as the only leading anti-European candidate, would hope to register a surge in the polls. Mr Hollande has already shifted his position to warn left-wing voters that the first job of a new centre-left president would be to cut deficits "fairly", not to spend.

President Sarkozy is indelibly associated with the efforts to rescue the euro. He is, nonetheless, positioning himself as the battle-hardened, clear-headed campaigner to whom France should turn to in the event of calamity.

In an off-the-record briefing with French journalists last week, the Socialist candidate Mr Hollande predicted that Mr Sarkozy would campaign as the "sal mec" ("dirty swine") capable of doing everything needed to rescue France from disaster.

Mr Sarkozy's henchmen immediately misquoted Mr Hollande and said that he had called Mr Sarkozy a "sal mec". They then accused him of demeaning the presidency.

In other words, they proved Mr Hollande right. Mr Sarkozy may not have officially joined the race but his attack dogs are already barking. And though still tame by American standards, this is shaping up to be a nasty campaign.

In the race: Runners with eyes on the top job

François Hollande

The Socialist candidate has been a player in French politics for three decades without ever having a ministerial job. Likeable, thoughtful but unexciting, he's promised to be a "normal" leader after the political soap opera of the Sarkozy years

Eva Joly

A former investigative magistrate turned sincere but unconvincing green politician, she came to France as a teenaged Norwegian au pair. As the miscast candidate for the Green-Europe Ecology party, she is failing to harvest a potentially high, green vote

Marine Le Pen

The National Front candidate is youngest daughter of the party's founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen. She has moderated (or disguised) the party's xenophobic excesses and is running as a kind of Gallic UKIP candidate, abandoning the Gallic BNP of papa.

François Bayrou

A former education minister with a small, dysfunctional, centrist party, he is making his third run for the presidency as a plain-speaking candidate for commonsense and the standard-bearer of the anti-Sarko centre-right.

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