PARIS (AP) – French President Nicolas Sarkozy heard his first welcome news in a while Tuesday: a boost in the polls likely to encourage his reach to the far right for votes and ideas in his battle for re-election.
For the first time in this campaign, a new poll suggests the long-unpopular president could beat Socialist Francois Hollande in the first round of voting next month. But, like all previous polls, it indicates Hollande would beat the incumbent convincingly in the crucial runoff.
The campaign remains full of uncertainties. A second poll made public Tuesday shows Hollande maintaining a solid first-round lead.
The conservative Sarkozy has shifted visibly to the right in his campaign, calling for a crackdown on immigration and criticizing measures accommodating France’s millions of Muslims. He’s trying to tap votes from the resurgent far right and its candidate Marine Le Pen, whom polls put at a strong third place and whose father made it into the 2002 presidential runoff.
Marine Le Pen won a victory of her own Tuesday, as her party announced that she has obtained the 500 signatures from elected officials necessary to formalize her bid for the presidency.
Le Pen had warned that a stigma against her anti-immigrant party might keep her from getting the signatures needed to join the race, and her party said mainstream politicians were pressuring mayors and other local officials not to support her.
Le Pen announced on Twitter on Tuesday that “the system that wanted to prevent me has just lost a battle.”
She looked radiant as she made an official declaration of her candidacy later Tuesday in her northern bastion of Henin-Beaumont.
“From today, millions of citizens will again have hope,” she said, before spelling out her anti-immigration program that Sarkozy is now borrowing from.
The deadline to submit the signatures is Friday, and the elections are being held in two rounds April 22 and May 6.
The campaign is shaping up as a referendum on the divisive, blunt Sarkozy, a prominent player in the world arena but seen by many French voters as too friendly with the rich or harsh on immigrants.
One poll found most voters who plan to vote for Hollande are doing so to keep Sarkozy out of the Elysee Palace _ not because they are passionate about Hollande himself, a jovial legislator who led the Socialist Party through a troubled decade and whose most dramatic campaign pledge is to tax the ultra-rich at 75 percent of their income.
A poll by the Ifop agency for Paris-Match magazine and Europe-1 radio released Tuesday says that 28.5 percent of 1,638 respondents plan to vote for Sarkozy in the first round, with 27 percent for Hollande.
The difference falls within the margin of error for the poll, which is 1.6 to 2.5 percent, according to Ifop pollster Frederic Dabi. That means that the two are statistically about even.
For the second round, the new poll says Hollande would win by a 9-point spread. Still, the new figures reflect the overall trend in recent weeks of Sarkozy gaining on Hollande.
A separate poll released by agency TNS-Sofres on Tuesday suggests Hollande would have a 4-point lead in the first round, at 30 percent to Sarkozy’s 26 percent. That poll, conducted Monday by telephone among 1,000 respondents, had a 2 percent margin of error.
Emmanuel Riviere of TNS-Sofres said the overall picture in both polls is the same, of a largely two-man race with Hollande the overall front-runner.
“On the fundamentals, we are finding bi-polarization at the top,” he said. The difference between Sarkozy and Hollande in the first round “has symbolic importance, but very little political importance.”
Asked Tuesday about the poll, Sarkozy told reporters, “I didn’t believe you when you said it was all over. And I don’t believe you anymore when you say it’s on the rebound.” He, however, couldn’t contain his broad smile.
Hollande tried to play down the figures, which also suggest growing support for the far left. That could sap support for Hollande, the mainstream leftist, in the first round.
“What counts for me is not polls, which have already seen me winning for so many months. It’s the French people’s vote,” he said during a campaign rally in Valence in southeast France.
Sarkozy has been unpopular for most of his five-year term and is facing an electorate frustrated with economic slowdown and high unemployment. Many of his onetime supporters feel he has failed to fulfill promises of kickstarting the economy and improving their purchasing power, and the global financial crisis has revived support for anti-capitalist sentiment.
“The French are fed up with him. He has lied so much, he has said so many things, so often, that were false, so it’s not possible to continue with him,” said Eric Duchossoy, waiting at a Paris bus stop Tuesday.
Far-left candidate Philippe Poutou and Gaullist candidate Nicolas Dupont-Aignan also announced Tuesday that they have enough signatures to make the ballot. Some would-be contenders are still struggling for the 500 names, including former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Cindy Lee, a former stripper who held a rally Tuesday to drum up support for her bid.
“I want to put the individual in the center of politics, and its well-being,” the head of the Pleasure Party told reporters.
Cecile Brisson and Jeffrey Schaeffer in Paris and Nicolas Garriga in Henin-Beaumont contributed to this report.
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