- The Washington Times - Friday, April 20, 2007

PARIS — France’s volatile presidential campaign wound down yesterday with conservative Nicolas Sarkozy still the favorite to advance to a final runoff. But, with two in five voters hesitating about their choice, the race for the second spot on the ballot was wide open.

All 12 candidates were required to halt campaigning by midnight. Early voting begins today in some French overseas territories, with mainland France casting ballots tomorrow. A runoff between the top two contenders is planned for May 6.

Two polls released yesterday put Mr. Sarkozy on top, followed by Socialist Segolene Royal. Center-right hopeful Francois Bayrou came next followed by ultranationalist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The election will determine who leads a nuclear-armed nation with a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council after 12 years under President Jacques Chirac.

Mr. Sarkozy, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is often perceived as pro-American. Such a duo in charge of the governments in Paris and Berlin would signal change from the era of Mr. Chirac and former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder — who had chilly relations with Washington, mainly over the Iraq war.

France is looking for new direction. It is down in its economic fortunes, adrift in its identity and still coping with fallout from youth riots in poor, immigrant areas in 2005.

A poll released yesterday by TNS Sofres Unilog said Mr. Sarkozy would garner 28 percent tomorrow, followed by Miss Royal at 24 percent, Mr. Bayrou at 19.5 percent and Mr. Le Pen at 14 percent.

An Ipsos poll put Mr. Sarkozy at 30 percent, Miss Royal at 23 percent, Mr. Bayrou at 18 percent and Mr. Le Pen at 13 percent.

In the runoff, TNS Sofres’ poll said Mr. Sarkozy would win with 53 percent, compared with Miss Royal’s 47 percent; Ipsos had Mr. Sarkozy at 53.5 percent and Miss Royal at 46.5 percent. Those agencies polled between 1,000 and 1,200 adults this week. Polls of such size usually have a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Forty-two percent were uncertain, TNS Sofres said. Ipsos did not calculate such data, but said that only 55 percent of supporters of Mr. Bayrou were firm about their choice of him.

Frederic Daby, a director of the IFOP polling agency, said there were two main camps of undecided voters: one choosing between Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Le Pen, the other between Miss Royal and Mr. Bayrou.

In 2002, in the last presidential vote, voters disaffected by the political establishment flocked to Mr. Le Pen and he advanced to the runoff against Mr. Chirac. He lost, but his ability to make it that far shocked many.

Voter registration is up everywhere, especially in poor suburbs where largely Muslim and African immigrants and their French-born children live in rundown housing projects — and up to half the youth are jobless.

The second round was shaping up as a referendum on Mr. Sarkozy — a figure of discord. His frankness, energy and free-market values are amired on the right, but his tough talk against suburban troublemakers has gone down badly with many immigrants’ children.

However, among French Muslims, a Zogby poll found Mr. Sarkozy narrowly edging Miss Royal, 29 percent to 28 percent with Mr. Bayrou at 23 percent and Mr. Le Pen at 6 percent.

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