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DateLine Sunday, 22 April 2007

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Nail-biting wait as France prepares to vote for new president

A nail-biting suspense gripped France Saturday, as the country prepared to vote in the first round of the presidential election as the last polls showed the race is wide open.

Official campaigning stopped at midnight Friday, after which a ban came into force preventing media from publishing opinion polls and statements from the 12 candidates.

After a day meant for discussion among family and friends, voting opens at 8:00 am (0600 GMT) Sunday morning and ends 12 hours later, with normally reliable projections due out immediately.

The latest published surveys continued to show right-wing favourite Nicolas Sarkozy in the lead. But the race for second place was hotly contested by Socialist Segolene Royal, centrist Francois Bayrou and far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Only the two front-runners from the ballot qualify for a decisive second round on May 6 - the system having been devised so that presidents are elected with more than half the vote.

The first votes were actually to be cast Saturday as citizens of French overseas territories and expatriates in the Americas go to the polls 24 hours ahead of mainland France.

The tiny French dependency of St Pierre and Miquelon - a group of islands off Canada's Atlantic coast with just 5,000 registered voters - was to kick off the election at 1000 GMT.

The four leading contenders held their last rallies on Thursday evening, appealing to the third of the 44.5 million voters that pollsters say are still undecided.

For the last month polls have consistently given a clear first round lead to Sarkozy, a 52-year-old former interior minister who heads the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).

Royal, 53, has been in second place followed by Bayrou and Le Pen - but the gap separating them has varied widely and speculation has centred on who will join Sarkozy in the second round.

Speaking late Friday in the northwestern city of Rouen, Bayrou - who heads the small Union for French Democracy (UDF) - repeated his claim to be the only candidate capable of beating Sarkozy in the run-off.

"This is very important, and very positive. It answers the question that all those undecided voters are asking: what is the most effective vote for ensuring things change," the 55-year-old centrist politician said. Royal, a former environment minister who wants to be France's first woman president, would be under threat if large numbers of left-wing voters switched tactically to Bayrou in order to keep out Sarkozy, analysts said.

However she stands to gain from memories of the 2002 vote when the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin was beaten in round one by Le Pen. Failure to qualify for a second time for round two would be disastrous for the Socialist party, and this may encourage left-wingers to stay with Royal.

A further uncertainty hangs over the level of support for Le Pen, 78, who says that his poll ratings underestimate his true vote.

Some newspapers issued endorsements for candidates Saturday, with the pro-Communist daily L'Humanite urging a vote for Communist Party's Marie-George Buffet. The left-wing newspaper Liberation said that "what counts (in a leader) are the spirit of decision and a feeling for the nation. On both these counts, Segolene Royal has shown she easily is the equal of her adversaries."

On Thursday the centre-left Le Monde urged the electorate not to vote for Bayrou, in order to give a clear left-right choice on May 6.

France is choosing a successor to Jacques Chirac - who has been president since 1995 - in an election seen as one of the most exciting and important in recent times.

Also running in the election are three Trotskyites, a Green and anti-capitalist campaigner Jose Bove. The other two are a hunters' rights candidate and the Catholic nationalist Philippe de Villiers.

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