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Candidates Make Final Campaign Push for Elysee
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France's presidential candidates made a final push for support on Friday, the last day of campaigning before Sunday's first round ballot with rightist Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Segolene Royal favorites to win.

But with millions of voters undecided, neither frontrunner was taking anything for granted after months of fierce political battle that has focused as much on personality as policy.

"The French are facing a choice which is not easy, because they have to judge a project, a journey and a character," said Royal, who is seeking to become France's first woman president.

A campaign blackout comes into force at midnight, with a day of reflection on Saturday before the polls open on Sunday.

A dozen candidates are seeking election and if, as expected, no one wins an absolute majority on April 22 the top two will meet in a second round ballot on May 6.

Sarkozy has maintained a consistent lead in the opinion polls for months, but Royal has narrowed the gap over recent days and analysts say both centrist Francois Bayrou and far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen could yet cause an upset.

In 2002, Le Pen stunned France by knocking out the Socialist candidate, to win a place in the run off against sitting President Jacques Chirac, who secured a comprehensive victory.

Chirac, 74, the last survivor of a political class formed by World War II General Charles de Gaulle, is retiring after 12 years in power, and the poll frontrunners are in their early 50s, promising a generational change at the top of France.

The election campaign has run against a background of deeply entrenched worries over jobs, immigration and security, with memories of riots in France's deprived suburbs in 2005 still fresh in the memory.

And there was a reminder of the potential for further trouble after reports that camera crews filming at one of the centers of the 2005 violence near Paris were assaulted.

'Covered in scars'

The last appearances of the candidates had heavy symbolic overtones, with Sarkozy riding a horse through a bull farm in the south, Royal at a trendy street market in Paris and Bayrou at a World War I memorial in Verdun.

The campaign has increasingly focused on personalities over the past month especially that of Sarkozy who has been vilified as a dangerous, divisive force.

He has tried to build a more soothing image, with tributes to admired figures like civil rights leader Martin Luther King and Pope John Paul II but he has been riled by the attacks.
"I am covered in scars," he told Le Parisien daily.

Royal has presented herself as a healing force for a divided France, but has had a rocky campaign, facing constant questions over her competence following a series of foreign policy gaffes.

She has recovered ground in recent days, thanks partly to the constant attacks on Sarkozy's character, and British bookmakers William Hill cut their odds on her to 3/1 from 10/3. Sarkozy was still the favorite with odds of 2/5.

(China Daily via agencies April 21, 2007)

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