PARIS (Reuters) - France’s presidential election campaign officially began on Monday and a new poll showed gains for the right-wing frontrunner Nicolas Sarkozy and for far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen.
The 12 hopefuls unveiled new television and radio spots in line with strict election rules, trying to win the support of the large number of undecided voters ahead of the first-round vote on April 22.
Sarkozy has extended his comfortable lead over his main rival, Socialist Segolene Royal, an LH2 poll for RMC radio showed, while Le Pen has crept up on the third-placed centrist candidate Francois Bayrou.
But the poll also showed that 47 percent of voters were undecided or had picked a candidate but could change their mind, highlighting the importance of the last phase of campaigning.
The candidates are allowed 45 minutes of media spots split between public television and radio to get their message across before April 20. They are also allowed to stick up posters on official boards in front of voting stations.
The system is designed to be fair to all candidates but critics say the large amount of time devoted to the smaller candidates can help push voters to extremes — a particular danger when so many voters are undecided.
On the left there are three Trotskyites and one anti-globalisation candidate and on the right there is Le Pen.
Le Pen has edged up the polls in recent weeks, as the debate has turned to issues of security and immigration. Clashes between police and youths at Paris’s Gare du Nord station have also highlighted the traditional themes of his campaign.
The LH2 poll, carried out on the same day that Le Pen grabbed headlines with a visit to a poor mixed-race suburb of Paris, gave him 15 points, just three points behind Bayrou and up 2 points from his score in the previous LH2 poll.
His rise is reminiscent of the 2002 presidential election, when he shocked France by getting into the second round runoff.
But he is still a long way behind Royal and poll leader Sarkozy, who has toughened his stance on immigration and security to try to draw away some of Le Pen’s support.
A separate CSA poll for Le Parisien newspaper said 59 percent of voters expect Sarkozy to be the next president compared with 18 percent for Royal and 1 percent for Le Pen.
In his television spots, Sarkozy tried to reinforce his tough image, described himself as a man of action and promising to get tough on benefit fraud.
In contrast Royal, who has lost out in the immigration and security debate and whose campaign has struggled in recent weeks, plays up her credentials as a mother and a woman.
A second round will take place on May 6 between the two front runners, if, as expected, no candidate gets over 50 percent in the first round. The LH2 poll said Sarkozy would win this with 52 points to Royal’s 48.