Sarkozy and Hollande in final election push

A final day of campaigning in France's elections is taking place as incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, his Socialist challenger, look for votes in Sunday's run-off.

Recent opinion polls suggest Sarkozy has cut Hollande's lead slightly to six per cent but is still trailing Hollande.

Analysts say he needs a major reversal in fortunes to win on Sunday.

Francois Bayrou, who came fifth in April's first-round presidential vote with 9.1 per cent, accused Sarkozy of having veered to the far-right on immigration and abandoned European values.

"I am not making any voting recommendation. Each one of my friends, of my supporters, will vote according to their own conscience," Bayrou said, two days after Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader, said she would back neither mainstream candidate but cast a blank ballot.

"I do not want to cast a blank vote," Bayrou said. "That would mean indecision. That leaves the vote for Francois Hollande and that's the choice I am making."

Commentaries criticised

Speaking to Europe 1 radio on Friday, Sarkozy brushed aside Bayrou's comments, stressing that he had won the election in 2007 without Bayrou's endorsement.

"There is a feeling among the French that this avalanche of commentaries and polls ... is robbing them of some of their freedom," he said.

A second opinion poll conducted after Wednesday's televised election debate in France showed Sarkozy making up ground against Hollande, narrowing the gap to six points from 10.

The poll by Harris Interactive gave Hollande 53 per cent of the vote, down two points from late April, and Sarkozy 47 per cent, up two points.

The survey found 31 per cent of respondents thought Hollande was more convincing, against 29 per cent for Sarkozy in the debate, watched by more than a third of the electorate.

It was the third poll of the day to show Sarkozy inching towards Hollande, whose lead will still be tough to overcome so close to the vote.

Pollster CSA also gave Hollande 53 per cent to Sarkozy's 47 per cent, a two-point narrowing in their margin since April 26, and an OpinionWay poll conducted half before and half after the debate gave Hollande his smallest margin yet of five points.

'Better than others'

At a rally in Toulon on Thursday, Sarkozy told supporters he had stopped France from being engulfed by the economic crisis.

Sarkozy, who has defended his record as better than others amid economic woes across Europe, said his government's reforms had stopped France from following the same path as countries like Greece, Portugal and Spain.

"The crisis has made life harder for many of our fellow countrymen. The crisis has destroyed jobs, the crisis has torn lives apart, the crisis has created suffering," Sarkozy told supporters.

Sarkozy was set to give another speech at Sables d'Olonne in western France.

As for Hollande, about 40,000 people gathered in the southern town of Toulouse on Thursday for his final campaign rally.

He told supporters that victory "is within a hand's reach, yours, the hand of each citizen who will cast his ballot".

The result of the run-off on Sunday could reshape the debate in the 17-nation eurozone - which Sarkozy has helped guide along with Germany's Angela Merkel - on how best to resolve the European debt crisis amid sluggish growth across the continent.

Hollande has confirmed he will take part in an informal European Union summit at the end of May or early June if elected.

But he has already raised concerns in European capitals with a vow to re-negotiate the EU's hard-fought fiscal pact to focus on growth as well as austerity.

Merkel has said there will be no renegotiation of  the pact, which limits public spending in a bid to tackle Europe's soaring debt, but has conceded that growth would be on the June EU summit agenda.

Hollande was due to travel to Moselle for a campaign speech, followed by a visit to Perigueux in the Dordogne region for his final rally.

Campaigning officially finishes at 22:00 GMT on Friday.