Socialist François Hollande was on track to defeat right-wing incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy as France entered the final day of campaigning before its presidential election run-off tomorrow.
Boosted by an endorsement from centrist François Bayrou, Hollande urged voters to hand him an “ample victory” so he would have a strong mandate to implement his left-wing programme.
Polls showed Sarkozy, who insisted the race was still close, narrowing the gap slightly but still five to seven points behind.
“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.”
Increasingly confident, Hollande said he would get to work straight away. “I will have no grace period. The country’s problems will not disappear with the eventual departure of Nicolas Sarkozy, he won’t take the public debt, unemployment, and social problems with him.”
Sarkozy, the first incumbent to ever lose a first-round vote, said the race was not over and urged his supporters to flock to the polls. “I feel there will be a very strong turnout in the second round and that really we are in a state of very close equality. It will play on very little,” he said.
“This is not simply a choice between me or François Hollande, but what we want for our country in the next five years.”
The last week of the campaign was marked by fierce exchanges and a television debate that saw the contenders trade insults without either landing a knock-out blow.
The French left has not won a presidential election in a quarter of a century, but fears over low economic growth, rising joblessness, and EU-imposed austerity have given the Socialists a boost.
Many voters also disapprove of Sarkozy’s flashy style during his five-year term and have welcomed Hollande’s vows to be a “normal president”.
Bayrou announced he would be voting for Hollande, despite concerns about his commitment to deficit reduction.
While Bayrou said he would not instruct the 9% of the electorate who voted for him in the first round to vote one way or another, he said he had been offended by Sarkozy’s lurch to the right since the first round.
“I, personally, will vote for François Hollande,” he said, expressing regret that the incumbent was pursuing the support of the 18% of the electorate that backed Marine Le Pen.
Sarkozy has moved increasingly to the right ahead of the second round, vowing to “defend French values”, limit immigration, and strengthen France’s borders.
Sarkozy was speaking at a rally in the western town of Sables d’Olonne as Hollande held a rally in the south-west city of Perigueux.
The campaign was to officially end at midnight, with no political speeches or opinion polls allowed until voting stations close.
The latest polls showed Hollande ahead with 52.5% to 53.5% of the vote, with Sarkozy gaining between 0.5 and 1.5 points in the last days of the campaign.
The candidates held their last major rallies on Thursday, with Sarkozy appearing at a huge gathering in the southern city of Toulon to denounce Hollande as a threat to French values.
“The left is destroying the republic with its habit of regarding all things as having equal value,” he said. “It’s time for a national burst of energy.”
In Toulouse, Hollande slammed Sarkozy’s record in office and predicted a Socialist victory, cautioning against complacency.
* French investigators looking into Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s ties to a suspected prostitution ring in the northern city of Lille want to extend the inquiry to cover alleged group rape by the former IMF chief and three friends, prosecutors said.
Strauss-Kahn is under formal investigation over whether he was aware he was dealing with prostitutes and pimps when attending sex parties in Lille, Paris and Washington in 2010 and 2011 allegedly organised by business acquaintances.
Investigators have asked prosecutors to widen the inquiry after a prostitute told them in her deposition that Strauss-Kahn and friends forced her to have sex in a group when she came to Washington to meet him in Dec 2010.
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