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Sarkozy camp insists race not over as France vote looms

AFPBy Michael Mainville | AFP
French President Nicolas Sarkozy's camp insisted that France's election race was …Declarations of faith from French 2012 presidential candidates, France's President and Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) candidate Nicolas Sarkozy (R) and France's Socialist Party (PS) candidate Francois Hollande, are put in an urn in front of a voting booth in Bethune, northern France. (AFP Photo/Denis Charlet)

President Nicolas Sarkozy's camp insisted Thursday that France's election race was far from over as the top candidates sought to lure a large number of undecided and apathetic potential voters.

Despite his strong and persistent lead in the opinion polls, Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande urged voters to show up for Sunday's first round, worried that a low turnout could benefit Sarkozy.

"It is in these next hours that many in France will make their choice. I can see that there is still some hesitation on whether or not to go out to vote," Hollande told AFP in an interview.

"My approach is clear: to convince voters in order that the first round carries the second," he said.

Polls show French voters are set to turn their backs on Sarkozy after a single five-year term and choose Hollande in Sunday's first round of the presidential vote and a run-off two weeks later.

But they also show a large portion of voters remain undecided -- nearly one in four according to an OpinionWay-Fiducial poll released Wednesday -- and Sarkozy's spokeswoman said the election was still up in the air.

"The pollsters themselves say they have never seen such an uncertain campaign with so little time to go," Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet told the Direct Matin newspaper.

"The proportion of voters who say they could change their minds is extremely high," she said.

The right-wing president's aides have said he needs a victory in the first round to reverse his poll deficit before the May 6 run-off.

But, with three days to go before the vote, most polls show Hollande, a 57-year-old moderate Socialist with no government experience, ahead in the first round and the clear favourite in the second.

Pollsters say 57-year-old Sarkozy has failed to overcome disappointment over his term since 2007, fuelled by his aggressive style and France's increasing joblessness despite his vows to create wealth and jobs.

The OpinionWay-Fiducial poll showed 24 percent of voters remain undecided and, after a campaign many have described as lacklustre, up to 26 percent of those registered planned not to vote all.

It also showed more than a quarter of voters backing three less fancied candidates -- far-leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon, centrist Francois Bayrou and the Greens' Eva Joly -- could change their minds before Sunday.

Hollande is hoping for a resounding first-round win to keep up his momentum and is worried a lower turnout could favour Sarkozy or far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, whose hard-core supporters are more likely to vote.

"I can feel each day the support but also the apprehension, as if something could happen to prevent us from succeeding," Hollande said.

"And it is true, the game is not over, nothing is done," Hollande said.

The record for the highest first-round abstention rate was in 2002, when 28.4 percent of voters stayed home and Le Pen's father Jean-Marie stunned observers by getting to the second round before losing to Jacques Chirac.

Polls mostly show Hollande slightly ahead in the first round with between 26 and 29 percent of the vote, followed by Sarkozy with 24 to 28 percent.

Hollande is the clear favourite in the second round, where he is expected to defeat Sarkozy with between 53 and 58 percent of the vote.

The polls show Le Pen with between 14 and 17 percent, Melenchon with 12 to 15 percent and Bayrou with 10 to 12 percent.

With France reeling from the eurozone debt crisis and unemployment recently hitting a 12-year high, the economy and public finances have topped the list of voters' concerns during the campaign.

Hollande has vowed to balance France's budget by 2017 while boosting taxes on the rich, increasing spending and creating thousands of state jobs.

He has scored populist points by declaring the world of finance his "enemy", vowing a 75-percent tax bracket for incomes over a million euros and promising to re-negotiate the EU's fiscal austerity pact to focus on growth.

He has also vowed to tone down the presidency if he wins, telling AFP his would be a "modest" presidency in contrast to Sarkozy and vowing to be "a president in service to his country and not to his own ambition."

Sarkozy has hit back at Hollande's inexperience and with predictions that a Socialist victory will spark a "massive crisis of confidence" among investors and a speculative run on the euro.

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