Socialist candidate Francois Hollande holds a narrow lead in the polls ahead of potential landmark elections. The dramatic campaign has been dogged by scandal and political mud-slinging as both candidates fight for the support of the French public.
Incumbent President Sarkozy has faced plummeting popularity during his presidential term, unable to shake off the elitist tag “president of the rich.”
The presidential candidates locked horns in a live televised debate on Wednesday, slinging insults at each other in what was viewed as Sarkozy chance to win back his re-election bid.
Sarkozy is currently trailing in the latest polls by 6 per cent, a gap many believe he is unlikely to close before Sunday’s vote. A loss would make him the first defending president to concede defeat since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1981.
During the last week of campaigning he has succeeded in catching up with his competitor by five to seven points. In spite of the polls Sarkozy told cheering supporters in France’s southern Vendée region that Sunday’s vote was on “a razors edge.”
Sarkozy has recently championed anti-immigration policy, appealing to far-right candidate Marine le Pen’s supporters in an effort to win votes. He vowed to pull France out of the EU’s free border Schengen Agreement if immigration was not properly policed.
Francois Bayrou, a candidate from the democratic movement who took 10 per cent of votes in the first round, condemned Sarkozy’s change in policy, announcing on Thursday that he would vote for Hollande.
“The line Nicolas Sarkozy has chosen is violent,” Bayrou said. “It contradicts our values.”
Bayrou’s move dealt a blow to Sarkozy’s campaign, which had hoped to mop up some of the former candidate’s supporters in the presidential race.
Hollande slammed Sarkozy’s shift to the right and accused him of “dividing the French people” during Wednesday’s feisty debate.
Campaigning has heavily centered on France’s economic policy and mitigating the crisis which racks the country. Sarkozy favors austerity measures to curtail rising debt and cooperation with Germany in the controversial fiscal compact treaty that threatens EU countries with heavy fines should they not bring down their deficit.
Hollande has challenged the Merkel-friendly approach that the eurozone can only be fixed by austerity measures, even if it means rising unemployment and economic stagnation. The socialist candidate is pushing measures that he believes will promote economic growth.
He has pledged to introduce a 75 per cent income tax on citizens earning over 1 million euro, increase corporation taxes and create new public sector jobs.
RT correspondent Tesa Arcilla reporting from Paris said, “from the beginning of the campaign there has not been much enthusiasm from the people” who do not see either candidate as having a viable solution to the economic crisis.
“Nevertheless 80 per cent of voters have already made up their minds,” she said.
Polls open on Sunday and the preliminary results are expected in the evening at 8pm French time, 18:00 GMT.
Robert Harneis an independent journalist specializing in French affairs, attributed French disillusionment with current President Sarkozy to his “abrasive and untraditional personality.” He underlined the difficulties of maintaining popularity while running a country experiencing a “recession and rising unemployment.”
If Francois Hollande is elected, Harneis said that the most significant change will be a stylistic one. He elaborated on Hollande’s lack of experience, highlighting the fact that “he has never served in any public office at a national level.”
He concluded that there were big questions over Hollande’s candidacy given that fundamentally the French are not sure they want a socialist government because “they always suspect that the socialists will tax and spend, and maybe this isn’t appropriate for the current circumstances.”