With just 9 days to go before the first round of voting in the French presidential poll, political observers say a second round run-off between incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist challenger, Francois Hollande, appears inevitable.

“None of the three second rankers — the extreme Left's champion Jean-Luc Melanchon, the extreme Right National Front's Marine Le Pen or the centrist Francois Bayrou — has managed to break away and make enough of an impression on the electorate to create an unexpected upset in the line up and a Sarkozy-Hollande battle seems almost certain,” Renaud Dely, who edits the influential Left-wing magazine Le Nouvel Observateur told The Hindu.

But, Mr. Dely warned, though the socialist had an almost unshakeable seven to 10 point lead in the polls in the second round run-off scheduled for May 6, the two weeks separating the two rounds could serve some surprises.

Ten candidates are in the fray for the first round including the former magistrate, Eva Joly, running for the ecologists. But her poll ratings have dropped from three per cent to a miserable 1.5 of the vote. Mr. Sarkozy leads the pack, credited with 29 per cent, followed by Mr. Hollande (28.5), Marine Le Pen (16), Jean-Luc Melanchon (15), centrist Francois Bayrou (9.5) and a few other minor candidates from the Left and the Right.

“There are several factors that could come into play. The first is the abstention rate. Some polls indicate it could be as high as 32 per cent — which would mean that one in every three voters in France is likely to stay away? That could tip the balance one way or the other, especially since May 6 falls bang in the middle of the Easter vacation for certain regions,” he said.

In France, where school holidays are staggered to avoid traffic accidents and congestion, some 30,000-40,000 voters will be off work when the election takes place. And though all of them may not be away on holiday, it could definitely have an impact.

Much will depend on how various candidates fare in the first round and how those votes are then transferred to either the Socialist or the Conservative candidate in the second round.

“In the first round, polls show Sarkozy leads by half a percentage point over Hollande. The extreme Left and the extreme Right candidates are neck and neck. But can one safely presume that all of Melanchon's votes will go to Hollande and all of Marne Le Pen's votes will go to Mr. Sarkozy? There are those from the centre and the traditional conservative Right who hate Sarkozy and have sworn they will not vote for him come what may. But will this attitude change when faced with a stark choice between Left and Right? Despite the lack of debate, the lack of real issues, this election is turning out to be quite a cliff hanger,” said Mr. Dely.

Mr. Sarkozy is showing growing signs of nervousness at his failure to diminish the solid second-round lead established by Mr. Hollande in the opinion polls. In his recent press conference, Mr. Sarkozy appeared tired, lacking his usual punch, as if somewhere he recognised the inevitability of defeat.

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