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Key candidates for France’s presidential elections

(AP) – France’s unpopular president, Nicolas Sarkozy, announced Wednesday he will seek a second term. Here’s a look at his chief challengers:

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FRANCOIS HOLLANDE

Hollande, 57, led the Socialist Party from 1997 to 2008, when the party suffered two humiliating defeats in presidential elections of 2002 and 2007. Now he’s the front-runner, consistently out-polling Sarkozy in election surveys since being nominated as the party’s candidate last October. A career politician who has built his reputation as a manager and consensus-builder more than a visionary, Hollande has tried to overcome his image as wishy-washy and bland. Benefitting from a large anti-Sarkozy sentiment, Hollande has campaigned on a leftist platform that takes aim at the wealthy, labeling the “world of finance” as his “real adversary” in the election. He was the longtime partner of 2007 presidential runner-up Segolene Royal, with whom he raised four children.

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MARINE LE PEN

Le Pen, 43, took over the leadership of the far-right National Front party last year, replacing her charismatic father Jean-Marie Le Pen. Polls generally show her in third place, close behind Sarkozy. Le Pen has revived the National Front’s prospects by sugar-coating the anti-immigrant message of her father, a convicted racist and anti-Semite. A divorced mother of three, Marine Le Pen has eaten into Sarkozy’s support and his aides have borrowed some of her anti-Muslim rhetoric. Holding back Le Pen’s ambitions is her struggle to secure the 500 signatures of local officials required to formalize her candidacy. Even if her chances are slim in the elections, Le Pen hopes a strong showing will allow the National Front to gain a parliamentary presence for the first time since 1986 and have a say in setting the national agenda.

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FRANCOIS BAYROU

Bayrou, 60, is a center-right politician who finished third in the last presidential election in 2007. Bayrou, a father of six, is the son of a farmer who likes to play up his rural, Catholic roots. First elected to parliament in 1986, Bayrou’s one stint in power was as education minister from 1993 to 1997 under right-wing governments. The latest polls show Bayrou attracting around 12 percent of the vote, in fourth place. He’s built his campaign around themes of industry, education and citizenship, and may also win support of voters who want anyone but Sarkozy in France’s top job.

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EVA JOLY

Joly, 68, made her name as a corruption-busting investigative judge tracking down and jailing some of the biggest names in French politics and business. Leftist environmental movement Europe Ecologie-Les Verts nominated her as its presidental candidate last year but her popularity has sunk in recent months and environmental issues are low on the overall campaign agenda. She caused a stir with her first campaign pledge: to scrap France’s traditional Bastille Day military parade. Joly left her native Norway and moved to France as a teenage au pair.

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JEAN-LUC MELENCHON

Melenchon, 60, co-presides the Left Party, which he helped found in 2008 under the slogan “Ecology, Socialism, Republic.” A far leftist, Melenchon was elected to the European Parliament in 2009 and was twice a French Senator. His one stint in government came as deputy minister for vocational education in 2000-2002. He was passed over to head the Socialist Party in 1997 by Francois Hollande. His campaign platform is built around rejecting austerity measures, and polls put him in fifth place.

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DOMINIQUE DE VILLEPIN

Villepin, 58, was prime minister from 2005 to 2007 under conservative President Jacques Chirac. A published poet and scholar of Napoleon Bonaparte, Villepin marked spirits around the world when, as France’s foreign minister in the runnup to the second Iraq war, he made an impassioned speech against military intervention in front of the U.N. General Assembly. A long-time archrival of Sarkozy, the two politicians waged a six-year battle over allegations Villepin took part in a murky smear campaign against Sarkozy. Villepin was acquitted of the charges last year. He’s running on a centrist platform, and has very little public support.

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