After hectic months ot the hustings, France’s presidential contenders go to the first round of elections on Sunday to whittle down the field of 10 to two frontrunners.
The chances of incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy winning look increasingly bleak as Socialist candidate Francois Hollande has notched up a commanding lead over UMP ruling party, according to the latest polls conducted in France ahead of the first round.
The polls showed Hollande had opened a five-point lead for the first round of voting and a 16-point lead in voting intentions for the May 6 run-off.
With those poll results, the Sarkozy camp was hit with the most damning opinion poll for weeks, but somehow Sarkozy briefly overtook Hollande in polls for round one following the Toulouse murders by an Islamist gunman.
All in all, however, Hollande has made steady gains in recent days in most polls, with one survey giving him 29 per cent of the first round vote against 24 per cent for Sarkozy.
As if the poll showings were not daunting enough, Sarkozy’s campaign was also hit by a potentially damaging revelation when it was revealed that his top donors met last Sunday at the Hotel Crillon, one of Paris’s most expensive and select venues.
That meeting was in many quarters considered a major public relations gaffe given the incumbent’s recent attempts to shed his “president of the rich” tag.
“That sums up his presidency,” sneered a jubilant Hollande. “He started in a top restaurant, Le Fouquet’s, and ends up in a grand hotel with the same guests.”
Even as Sarkozy’s hopes appeared to crumble, some of his closest right-wing ministers openly came out against him, with Fadela Amara, the former town planning minister and a one-time star of Sarkozy’s ethnically diverse “rainbow” cabinet, becoming the latest leading political figure to desert the embattled incumbent.
The incumbent’s popularity had earlier dropped dramatically following assertions that Jacques Chirac would vote for Hollande, a development that reportedly made Sarkozy’s popularity rating drop lower than any other French president seeking re-election.
After Amara’s desertion other former ministers close to Chirac followed suit, including Brigitte Girardin, the former overseas minister, who said she wished to “end policies that for five years have weakened the country and divided the French”.
At the same time Corinne Lepage, an ecologist environment minister in a previous centre-right government, announced that she would back Hollande, arguing that Sarkozy had veered too far to the right.
The avalanche of desertions continued with Azouz Begag, the equal opportunities junior minister and Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the former culture minister joining the list of those jumping ship.