Sarkozy takes first poll lead
Paris - President Nicolas Sarkozy pulled ahead of his Socialist rival for the first time in France's election race on Tuesday according to a poll conducted after the right-winger took a strident anti-EU turn.
The survey forecast Sarkozy would lead in the first round but still lose out to Francois Hollande in the second, but it was a symbolic boost for the leader who had consistently trailed his rival for the past five months.
"It's true that it's better when things are going well," Sarkozy told reporters when asked about the poll.
"Nothing is settled, nothing is finished. I campaigned before, I will campaign after ... let each say what he will do for the next five years and the French will decide," he said.
Sarkozy's spokesperson claimed there was "panic" among the Socialists after the Ifop poll said the president would win 28.5% of the vote in the first round in April, against 27% for Hollande.
Hollande, who has never held a ministerial post and whose ex-partner Segolene Royal lost to Sarkozy in 2007, is still on course to win the second round in May with 54.5% against Sarkozy's 45.5%, the poll said.
"It's a turning point... but a nuanced turning point," Frederic Dabi of Ifop said.
Socialist former minister Jack Lang played down the survey's importance, deeming it "abnormal" that an incumbent be as low in the polls as is Sarkozy.
"Let's not get taken in or too excited by this or that poll," he said.
The survey of 1 638 people was carried out by telephone, shortly after tens of thousands of Sarkozy supporters turned up in a Paris suburb on Sunday for his biggest campaign rally so far.
Sarkozy's UMP party had billed that meeting as a key part of their bid to turn the tables on Hollande.
The president, who had initially campaigned as the self-styled saviour of Europe's single currency, thrilled the cheering crowd with a surprise new eurosceptic stance.
In a tub-thumping speech, he threatened to pull France out of Europe's 26-nation passport-free travel zone unless the European Union does more to keep out illegal immigrants.
And he demanded the EU adopt measures to fight cheap imports, warning that France might otherwise pass a unilateral "Buy French" law.
The left was quick to attack what they saw as a populist stunt, with Hollande's team accusing Sarkozy of behaving like a eurosceptic British prime minister.
Hollande's campaign manager Pierre Moscovici said the new poll results were nothing for his team to worry about.
"This poll must be taken with cool heads," he said.
"Nothing is settled, we can see that the outgoing president is ready to do a lot to keep power, in particular with a lot of lies... and with temptations that could be perilous for the building of Europe."
Sins of the father
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the anti-immigrant, anti-EU National Front, meanwhile secured the backing of enough local government officials to run in the two-round presidential election, her party said on Tuesday.
All French presidential candidates must have the signed endorsement of 500 elected local mayors and officials - of which there are around 42 000 in France - by a March 16 deadline.
Although polls consistently put Le Pen in third place in the presidential race, there was speculation that few mayors or regional councillors wanted to take the political risk of associating themselves with her campaign.
Her father Jean-Marie Le Pen has repeatedly claimed in the past that he was struggling to garner the signatures necessary to stand for the presidency, but was able to do so at every presidential election since 1988.