Overseas voters cast first votes in French election
Late surge from Nicolas Sarkozy leaves the result of presidential race on a 'knife edge'
VOTERS in France's overseas territories began casting ballots for Nicolas Sarkozy or Francois Hollande last night in a presidential election that could affect everything from Europe's efforts to fight its debt crisis to how long French troops stay in Afghanistan.
The final polls show Mr Sarkozy making up ground on his Socialist challenger before today's election in France -- but still suggest a Hollande victory. Campaigning and the release of poll data have been suspended until the results of the run-off election come this evening.
Final opinion polls following last Wednesday's fiery television debate revealed a late surge in favour of the outgoing president, who has previously trailed his leftwing rival throughout the race.
The polls indicated that Mr Hollande was still on track to win the second-round runoff vote, but revealed that the gap between the presidential rivals had narrowed from 10 percentage points a week ago to just four. An Ifop poll for Paris-Match showed Mr Hollande at 52 per cent and Mr Sarkozy at 48 per cent.
On Friday, before the official midnight deadline for campaigning to end, Mr Hollande warned his supporters not to consider the election in the bag. At his last campaign meeting in Perigueux in south-west France, he said the battle was not yet won.
"It's true that you are confident and you want to win. I feel it," he told the crowd. "I don't want to be a killjoy, but don't make what could be the fatal mistake of thinking that the game is already over ... that you needn't turn out. I have to tell you that I am sure of nothing. This victory is still not certain."
At his final campaign meeting at the Sables-d'Olonne on France's Atlantic coast, Mr Sarkozy, who needs to pick up votes from Marine Le Pen's far-right Front National, which scored nearly 18 per cent in the first round of polling, was still confident that he could snatch victory and promised that today's result would be a "surprise".
"Each of you has the future of the country in your hands," Mr Sarkozy said.
"Nobody's vote counts more than another. You have no idea how many things are at play on this knife edge."
If the Socialist candidate is elected president, Mr Hollande and his supporters are expected to party at the Bastille on his return to Paris.
His campaign team has refused to give details of any planned celebrations, for fear of appearing too confident and spooking the electorate. However, the square, former site of the notorious prison overrun and destroyed during the French Revolution, is seen as the most likely venue for a mass gathering because of its powerful association with the left.
As Mr Sarkozy has discovered to his cost, celebrations matter in French politics. His decision to savour his 2007 victory at one of the country's most expensive restaurants, Fouquet's, on the Champs Elysees -- followed by a holiday on the yacht of a billionaire businessman friend -- must have seemed like a good idea at the time. But the image came back to haunt him as the global economic crisis struck, and ultimately served to reinforce the impression of a bling lifestyle and a sense that he was acting as a "president of the rich".
"If Hollande wins, people will automatically gravitate towards the Bastille without even being told," said a member of the Socialist party yesterday. "The place is very symbolic and it would be perfectly natural to celebrate victory there ... if we win, that is," he added.
Mr Sarkozy's election team is said to be planning a gathering at the equally symbolic Place de la Concorde -- where Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette lost their heads to the guillotine.
Mr Hollande has been circumspect about his choice of prime minister and cabinet posts if he wins, insisting that he has not made a shortlist.