Sarkozy edges up in election polls
Paris - French President Nicolas Sarkozy moved closer to Socialist election frontrunner Francois Hollande in an opinion poll published on Tuesday, two weeks after he formally entered the race for April's presidential election.
Several surveys of voters' intentions for the first-round ballot on April 22 show Sarkozy, who has battled bleak popularity ratings and economic gloom, gaining on Hollande since he began campaigning in mid-February. The latest showed him halving Hollande's lead to 3.5 percentage points within a week.
The challenger, who on Monday proposed a new 75% income tax on millionaires, remains far ahead of Sarkozy in polls of how people would vote in the likely head-to-head runoff between the two men on May 6. But Sarkozy's camp hopes a strong first-round showing can change minds before the decisive day.
Tuesday's survey by Ifop/Logica Business Consulting showed Sarkozy narrowed the first-round gap to 3.5 points from 7 a week earlier, with 27% support to Hollande's 31.5%, versus 25 and 32% in the pollster's previous sounding.
The same survey, carried out on February 24-25, showed Hollande 16 points ahead of Sarkozy in a runoff, at 58% to 42%. But that, too, marked a slip of one point for the Socialist and a one-point gain for Sarkozy, a conservative.
The poll of 959 people found that 22% of respondents could still change their minds for the second round, which will be held if no candidate wins an absolute majority in the first.
The election is a clear two-horse race, with Sarkozy selling himself as a strong pair of hands to pull France through economic turmoil with structural reforms, whereas Hollande, who is more widely liked but lacks ministerial experience, would hike wealth taxes to invest in education and jobs.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist Francois Bayrou are both more than 10 points behind in polls for the first round. Their supporters will be key for round two. Several other candidates from minor parties will also take part.
On Monday evening, Hollande told a television talk show that annual incomes above €1m would be taxed at 75% if he wins, as he pounded home the idea of a fairer economy for the lower and middle classes. The current top rate of income tax, paid by many, is 45%.
A centre-leftist who must nonetheless rally left-wingers of all stripes behind him, Hollande has taken aim at bankers in a campaign marked by joblessness and anxiety over purchasing power. His plans to raise taxes on companies and the rich have sparked talk of an exodus from France.
Sarkozy's Finance Minister Francois Baroin slammed the idea of a 75% income tax rate in a debate with Hollande's campaign chief Pierre Moscovici, who said he stood by the plan.
On the defensive
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told RTL radio the proposal showed Hollande was "scrambling to catch up" with Sarkozy's campaign rhythm. "He tries a new tax every day," he said.
Hollande, who laid out his programme a month ago, decried Sarkozy's tactic of trying to put him on the defensive by unveiling a new campaign idea each week. "The election is not a game, it's about being coherent," he told Monday's TV show.
A separate daily survey which Ifop/Fiducial carries out using a constant sample of voters, has also recorded a steady decline in Hollande's lead over the last week. Its Monday poll put Hollande and Sarkozy on 28 and 27% respectively for round one, and 55.5 and 44.5% for round two.