Europe

Sarkozy wins poll boost in race for presidency

March 11: A supporter holds portrait of France's president and candidate for the upcoming re-election, Nicolas Sarkozy during a meeting in Villepinte, north of Paris, France, as part of his electoral campaign.

March 11: A supporter holds portrait of France's president and candidate for the upcoming re-election, Nicolas Sarkozy during a meeting in Villepinte, north of Paris, France, as part of his electoral campaign.  (AP)

French President Nicolas Sarkozy heard his first welcome news in a while Tuesday 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 it, like all previous polls, indicates Hollande would win in the crucial runoff.

Sarkozy publicly shrugged off the new estimates, and the campaign remains full of uncertainties.

The conservative leader has shifted visibly to the right in his campaign, with calls for a crackdown on immigration and criticizing measures accommodating French Muslims. He's trying to tap votes from the resurgent far right and its candidate Marine Le Pen.

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.

Marine 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 said mainstream politicians were pressuring mayors and other local officials not to support her.

Le Pen announced on Twitter on Tuesday -- three days before the deadline to submit the signatures -- that "the system that wanted to prevent me has just lost a battle."

The deadline to submit the signatures is Friday, and the elections are being held in two rounds April 22 and May 6.

Far right candidate Philippe Poutou also announced Tuesday that he has enough signatures.

Sarkozy and Hollande are the main players in a campaign that is shaping up as a referendum on the divisive, blunt incumbent. Many voters say they'll vote for Hollande mainly to keep Sarkozy out of the Elysee Palace -- not because they are passionate about Hollande, a jovial legislator who led the Socialist Party through a troubled decade and has few dramatic campaign pledges.

A poll by the Ifop agency 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 really 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.

The first-round difference was reversed in the last Ifop poll two weeks ago, with Hollande at 28.5 percent and Sarkozy at 27 percent. That time, too, the difference fell within the margin of error.

The latest poll was conducted between Sunday and Monday night, right after Sarkozy made a major campaign speech in which he threatened to suspend France's participation in Europe's border-free travel zone if immigration isn't brought under control.

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's campaign 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.

"Nothing is set," Valls said on Europe-1 radio. "It's one poll among many."

Sarkozy has been unpopular for most of his five-year term and is facing an electorate frustrated with economic slowdown and high unemployment.