Rival rallies as French vote looms
Paris - France's Socialist presidential challenger Francois Hollande rode a wave of confidence towards the last weekend before polling day, as he and Nicolas Sarkozy prepared rival Paris rallies on Friday.
Hollande has seen his lead over the right-wing incumbent narrow slightly in recent weeks, but Sarkozy's late surge has not altered pollsters' predictions, and the left remains on course for victory over the two-round vote.
Sarkozy is pinning his hopes on what he calls a "silent majority" waiting in the wings, and hopes to see tens of thousands of voters flock to his banner at a massive rally on Sunday in Paris's Place de la Concorde.
Not to be outdone, Hollande has summoned his supporters to a parallel event in a park in Vincennes, an inner Paris suburb, to push his main campaign theme: "The time for change is now."
Hollande defended his low-key style in a seven-page interview in left-wing daily Liberation, insisting that his plan was to convince rather than seduce voters. "I have a duty to win," he said.
"I'm not asking you to marry me," he told the paper's morning editorial conference, adopting a presidential tone. "I'm not campaigning simply to generate joy. I have a higher responsibility."
Sarkozy accepts possibility
Sarkozy has implicitly accepted the possibility of a Hollande victory by warning this could trigger panic on the financial markets and a speculative attack on the euro, bringing France "to its knees".
Hollande has vowed to privilege growth over the austerity measures that Sarkozy has imposed in a bid to control France's budget deficit, a move that the right-winger warns would plunge France into the same debt crisis as Spain.
The challenger has played down the threat and responded that he is ready to take on the markets and to "dominate" them, accusing Sarkozy of being the plaything of high finance and failing to protect voters.
"It's been three years that the markets have been imposing their laws on us. That's my charge against the outgoing candidate, to have been incapable, along with other European leaders, to halt speculative capital flows," he said.
The opinion polls support Hollande's confidence.
The latest from the CSA institute, published on Friday, predicts that Hollande will beat Sarkozy by 27% to 26% in the first round on April 22, and by 57% to 43% in the May 6 run-off.
Other polls have shown a more narrow spread, but Hollande had enjoyed a consistent second-round lead in voting intentions since he won the Socialist primary in October, and remains the clear favourite.
Part of this has been the unexpected rise of the firebrand Communist-backed candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who stole some of the more-cautious Hollande's limelight but generated some much-needed energy on the left.
Melenchon's advance - CSA has him in third place on 17% - has kept predictions for Hollande's first-round score low, but most of his supporters are expected to switch to the centre-leftist before May 6.
Could turn fierce
Nevertheless, the two-week campaign window between the two rounds could turn fierce, when the frontrunners go head-to-head and broadcasters will no longer be forced by law to accord equal time to outsider candidates.
"The equal exposure rules, the limited impact of the launch of his manifesto and the Melenchon effect - which has attracted attention away from the right's candidate - all hurt Sarkozy's campaign," said CSA's Jerome Sainte-Marie.
For his part, Melenchon has two more major rallies planned, one on Saturday on the beach in the southern port city of Marseille, and then a triumphal return to Paris on Thursday for a last celebration before Sunday's vote.