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France: Sarkozy's lead shrinks

Conservative front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy's lead shrinking five days before the French presidential election's first round – but there is no surprise- votes are ready for anything after a roller-coaster race and a history of election-day sensations.

Sarkozy is near certain to advance after Sunday's voting to a runoff May 6 between the top two candidates. The No. 1 question now is who will join him and whether Sarkozy's challenger can beat him in the second round.

Tuesday's polls disagreed over which of Sarkozy's rivals is gaining at his expense. High voter volatility reflects France's search for direction after 12 years of economic stagnation under Jacques Chirac that have left the French feeling adrift.

Sarkozy's main challenger, Socialist Segolene Royal, has seen her once-robust campaign to become France's first female president suffer in recent months - but a poll published Tuesday by CSA put the two at 50-50 if they both make the runoff. That is the closest they have been in several weeks.

In the first round, the poll gave Sarkozy 27 percent to Royal's 25 percent.

Another poll, by Ipsos, said Sarkozy would win a runoff 52 percent to Royal's 48 percent. In a first round, Sarkozy would win 28.5 percent to Royal's 25 percent.

That poll suggested Royal's support was unchanged - but third-place candidate Francois Bayrou is picking up speed. Bayrou, a former education minister and farmer's son navigating a middle course between traditional left and right, polled at 19 percent.

The wild card remains far right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who regularly ranks fourth but came up from behind to surprise France and Europe - and pollsters - by making it into the 2002 runoff against Chirac. Voters then overwhelmingly elected Chirac over the nationalist who has been convicted of racism and anti-Semitism.

French voters also surprised observers in 2005 by rejecting the European constitution in a referendum by 54 percent, a figure well higher than pollsters expected. The vote, and the Dutch rejection days later, have left the continent's future in limbo.

This year, the French are ready for another election day jolt.

Some 84 percent of 714 people aged 18-34 polled by Ipsos last week said "anything is possible" this Sunday.

Bayrou said Tuesday that this time, "I think I could be the surprise."

Speaking on Europe-1 radio, he spelled out why: "I'm the only one who could beat Nicolas Sarkozy in the second round."

Analysts have attributed Bayrou's sudden rise in the polls in recent weeks to an "Anything But Sarkozy" push by opponents of the front-runner, whose aggressive attitude and tough policies on youth crime and immigration have made him widely reviled. As Royal's campaign stumbled, anti-Sarkozy voters latched on to Bayrou instead.

Sarkozy's aides have brushed off opinion soundings, even though they put him ahead.

"We don't believe the polls," his party spokeswoman Valerie Pecresse said Monday. "Nothing is won."

The Socialist Party, meanwhile, is trying to muster more votes by warning that the far right threatens to repeat its 2002 success.

The risk of reading polls too closely becomes clear when error margins are taken into account. For all the above polls, these cushions would be about 3 percentage points, making any combination of the main candidates mathematically feasible.

The CSA poll questioned 1,006 people Friday and Sunday by telephone nationwide. The Ipsos poll questioned 1,357 people Friday, Saturday and Monday.

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