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Sarkozy defends record amid sagging polls

French President Nicolas Sarkozy defended his economic record on Friday as a slew of opinion polls suggested his prospects of re-election were crumbling just over a week from round one of a vote where Socialist François Hollande is the clear front-runner.

Four polls published in less than 24 hours showed Mr. Hollande extending his lead, with the conservative incumbent's modest gains of the past month starting to evaporate ahead of a two-round contest taking place on April 22 and May 6.

A CSA poll showed Mr. Hollande winning the May 6 run off with 57 per cent of the vote. Three other polls also indicated that his chances of becoming France's first left-wing president since François Mitterrand were improving.

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Mr. Sarkozy maintained that he had helped France weather economic crisis over the past four years far better than countries such as Greece or Spain, and he renewed warnings of market turmoil if Mr. Hollande won power.

"Mr. Hollande, by promising to raise spending without any commitment to cutbacks, is setting the stage for a confidence problem [in financial markets]" Mr. Sarkozy told TV news channel i>TELE.

Mr. Hollande, who says he can slash the public deficit but also promote jobs and education as he raises taxes on the rich, stuck to his line in three newspaper interviews published on Friday. He said austerity would be self-defeating if not accompanied by efforts to promote economic growth in France and Europe.

"This I say clearly: Financial markets will not lay down the law in France," he told the business weekly La Tribune.

Mr. Hollande has raised eyebrows in Berlin and other capitals by criticizing a European Union accord on debt and deficit control – the fiscal compact agreed in an effort to counter the euro zone debt crisis – and by saying he would open talks if elected to amend it with a pro-growth commitment.

"Germany understands that it cannot remain an island of prosperity in an ocean of recession," he told Les Echos daily. "The changeover in France will pave the way for a change of direction in Europe."

Mr. Sarkozy, who launched his campaign in mid-February, enjoyed a rise in the polls during mid-to-late March and even overtook his Socialist rival in many poll estimates of first-round voting scores, although not a single poll in the past year has shown Mr. Hollande losing the second round.

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Some analysts and commentators had predicted that a spate of killings by an al Qaeda-inspired gunman in mid-March would make security fears overshadow economic concerns as the focus of the campaign, playing to Mr. Sarkozy's strengths.

The picture now emerging suggests that whatever gains Mr. Sarkozy enjoyed at that time were short-lived. But he showed no sign of relenting, telling i>TELE: "Polls and journalists don't make elections. Voters do."


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