France held its breath Saturday on the eve of a presidential election that Socialist Francois Hollande was predicted to win despite incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy closing the gap after wooing the far-right.
Political speeches and new opinion polls have been banned since a particularly ferocious campaign ended on Friday night, but the last poll published ahead of the deadline forecast a 52-48 percent win for Hollande.
The Ifop-Fiducial poll said Sarkozy has clawed back six percentage points of voter intentions since the end of last week as he went all-out to enchant those who voted for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the first round.
With the Socialist’s lead the narrowest since campaigning began, Sarkozy has vowed a surprise, while Hollande has stressed that nothing can be assumed about a first Socialist presidential victory in over a quarter century.
“Everything is possible on Sunday,” admitted the left-leaning Liberation’s headline, while the pro-Sarkozy Le Figaro’s front page stressed that French citizens had a “historic choice”.
“Electing a president is not a beauty contest,” warned a Le Figaro editorial, apparently targeting Hollande’s image as a soft and convivial consensus builder without ministerial experience.
Liberation skewered Sarkozy for dragging his UMP party ever further to the right as he courted National Front voters, vowing to defend French values, limit immigration and strengthen France’s borders.
“Whatever the outcome, the political landscape will remain profoundly, durably and dangerously transformed,” it said.
French overseas territories were voting on Saturday, before the mass of some 46 million voters goes to the polls on Sunday.
Hollande was spending Saturday with his partner Valerie Trierwiler in his political heartland Tulle in central France, while Sarkozy was with his wife, former supermodel Carla Bruni, and their baby daughter Giulia.
Hollande won the April 22 first round with 28.63 percent of the votes to Sarkozy’s 27.18 percent, and both candidates have been fighting for the votes of those whose candidates failed to make the run-off.
Le Pen, who won almost 18 percent in the first round, has said she will cast a blank ballot, and observers expect many of her supporters to do the same.
Ifop has forecast however that 55 percent of her voters would back Sarkozy and 19 percent Hollande.
Meanwhile, 84 percent of those who voted for the Communist-backed Left Front candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon in the first round -- 11 percent of votes -- said they would vote for Hollande.
Sarkozy insisted in his final election rally on Friday that the race was too close to call.
“I want to convince you of one thing: every vote will count,” Sarkozy told supporters. “You cannot imagine at what point things will play on a razor’s edge on Sunday.”
Hollande urged voters to hand him a clear win so he would have a strong mandate to implement his left-wing program and fight EU-driven austerity.
“I want an ample victory,” Hollande told RTL radio. “If the French people must make a choice, they should do so clearly, overwhelmingly, so the winner has the capacity and means to act.”
The last week of the campaign was marked by a dramatic television debate that saw the contenders trade insults without either landing a knock-out blow.
Many French were surprised at the Socialist’s combativeness, while Sarkozy sought to portray himself as a victim fighting an unprecedented economic crisis with global reach.
Fears over low economic growth, rising joblessness and European Union-imposed austerity measures have worked in favor of the Socialists.
Many voters also disapprove of Sarkozy’s flashy style during his five-year term, welcoming Hollande’s vows to be a “normal president.”