French people will cast their final vote on Sunday to choose the next president from two candidates with completely different styles, personalities and experiences.
Nicolas Sarkozy, incumbent president
Nicolas Sarkozy, 57, the incumbent president representing the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), the son of a Hungarian immigrant and a trained lawyer, had held many government posts before becoming the president in 2007.
Trailing his challenger in major opinion polls since mid April, Sarkozy became the first incumbent president in the history of the French Fifth Republic not to win the first round election on April 22.
If he loses in the second round runoff on May 6, he would be the first president not to be re-elected for a second term since Valery Giscard d'Estaing in 1981.
Although fighting hard to alter the disadvantageous situation, Sarkozy was unable to put up a game-changing performance during the only TV debate on Wednesday night with his Socialist opponent Francois Hollande, and failed to seek endorsement from the far-right and centrist whose votes he desperately needs.
Since his re-election campaign started in February, Sarkozy pledged to bring jobs to millions by improving training at a time when the country's unemployment rate hit nearly 10 percent, and to listen more to French voters by calling referendums on reforms.
He said he would impose a minimum tax on profits of big listed companies to pocket billions of euros every year to help curtail government spending deficit.
The conservative politician also said he would lay out a "Buy European Act" within 12 months if re-elected, which obliges the state to consume domestically-produced goods.
Sarkozy warned to pull France out of the Schengen zone unless fellow member states strengthen controls on migrants, and vowed to reduce legal immigration to France from 180,000 to 100,000 annually.
Admirers see Sarkozy as dynamic and decisive. His performance for the six-month EU rotating presidency was remembered as assertive. He vowed to punish speculators and advocated a strong state role in the economy to address the global financial crisis in 2008.
He co-founded the G20 summits of major world economies and worked closely with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to deal with the eurozone debt crisis.
However, handicaps of record high unemployment, wider deficit and higher debts during his presidency, as well as his "bling-bling" personal style and harsh policies, resulted in the president now ranking the least popular incumbent campaigning to renew mandate at the Elysee.
Latest polls by Friday night when the election campaigns officially ended showed support for Sarkozy slightly raised to 48 percent, with his challenger still enjoying a 4-point lead.
Francois Hollande, Socialist Challenger
Francois Hollande, 57, Socialist Party (PS) candidate, has a shining education background with diplomas of Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales de Paris (HEC), Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) and Ecole nationale d'administration (ENA), all elite universities in France.
However, Hollande has never held a government post at national level. He served as the first secretary of the PS from 1997 to 2008, and was mayor of Tulle in central France from 2001 to 2008, as well as a member of parliament for the southwestern department of Correze.
Bespectacled and with a scholarly air, Hollande has successfully portrayed himself as a "normal president" as opposed to the hyperactive Sarkozy, taking advantage of public's disappointment with the incumbent president.
Like Sarkozy, Hollande pledged to provide more jobs. He promised to hire 60,000 teachers in his term in addition to 150,000 state-aided jobs to help young job seekers.
Hollande opposed a financial policy solely based on austerity, and said he would open negotiations on the European fiscal pact reached last December by adding new clauses focusing on economic growth and job creation.
He pledged to reach zero budget gap in 2017 if elected and urged the establishment of a European rating agency.
He also proposed a 75-percent tax rate on those who earn over 1 million euros (1.3 million U.S. dollars) a year on the one hand, and increase of the minimum wage on the other.
Hollande beat Sarkozy in the first round of the French presidential election with more than 28 percent of the votes, while the latter gathered 27 percent.
He took people by surprise during the TV debate against Sarkozy on Wednesday night for being unusually argumentative and aggressive, revealing more strength and potential than just being "quiet" and "unflappable."
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who had surprisingly won 18 percent of votes in the first round, said she would cast a blank vote without endorsing any candidate earlier this week.
But centrist party leader Francois Bayrou, who came fifth in the first round with 9.1 percent of, or 3.3 million voters, on Thursday said he would vote for the presidential frontrunner Hollande in Sunday's runoff election. But he declined to offer any advice to supporters for the final vote.
Being interviewed on television on Thursday, Hollande spoke openly of his foreign policies if elected as the next president.
He said he would pull out French combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year, and in the future will only intervene in foreign countries under the United Nation's mandate.
Hollande also talked about his stances on Syria, Iran, Israel and Palestine, and reiterated his pledge to improve social justice, economic development and make "real changes" for France.
The second round of the 2012 French presidential election will start on Sunday morning.
Most of the 85,000 polling stations across the country will close at 6 pm local time (GMT 1600) while in big cities at 8 pm (GMT 1800).
The official result of the election will be announced after all the voting booths close.