As campaigning for the French presidential election entered its final round, the two frontrunners — Conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist challenger Francois Hollande — held massive rallies in the capital in a numbers war that most observers said was a draw. Mr. Sarkozy on Monday insisted there were “at least 120,000 people” at his rally at the Place de la Concorde in central Paris, where he celebrated his win five years ago.

Journalists and political scientists, however, placed the number closer to 70,000 persons. Not only did Mr. Sarkozy fail to draw the magic number of 100,000, he also failed to give his campaign the momentum it needed to consolidate his position for the first round of the election scheduled for April 22. Mr. Hollande continues to lead in the polls, both for the first round and the run-off on May 6.

Indeed, the contrast between the two rallies could not have been sharper. Mr. Hollande's meeting was a joyous affair with faces from multiple ethnicities dotting the throng and several different flags, including that of the Socialist International, fluttering in the brisk breeze. There was a jolly, almost relaxed atmosphere that spoke of confidence, of victory within sight.

Mr. Sarkozy's rally was orderly, with the UMP Party's well-oiled machinery briskly propelling supporters down tightly-controlled aisles. The faces were almost uniformly white and there was just one flag in sight, the French tricolour.

If Mr. Hollande spoke of wishing to establish a society based on equality and justice, Mr. Sarkozy touched upon familiar themes — better financial management, hard work. He called upon France's “silent majority” to stand up and be counted. Mr. Hollande said the time had come for the silent majority to show boldness and audacity.

There was nothing new in either of their speeches except, perhaps, Mr. Sarkozy's last-minute decision to call into question the famous independence of the European Central Bank. And for that he got a sharp rap on the knuckles from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “I had the profound conviction,” said Ms. Merkel, “that President Sarkozy had identical views on the independence of the European Central Bank.” In his attempt to win new supporters, Mr. Sarkozy has lost old ones.

That has been Mr. Sarkozy's dilemma from the very start: a constant yo-yo between voters of the extreme Right — anti-Europe, xenophobic, anti-globalisation and anti-immigrant — and those at the centre — pro-European moderates who dislike the hardline he has adopted on immigration, security, or welfare handouts and who frown upon his brash and abrasive style.

Much will depend on the scores of the leaders from the two extremes — Marine Le Pen from the far-Right and Jean-Luc Melanchon from the far-Left. The bad boy of the Left continues to draw huge crowds with his talk of revolution and barricades. He has played the nostalgia card, painting pictures of a new proletarian revival. But his stand on issues like Myanmar, China, Cuba or controversial Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez — in support of the ruling cliques — tend to frighten centrists who would otherwise be tempted by the Socialist camp.

If Mr. Melanchon polls over 15 per cent of the vote in the first round, he will be in a position to ask Mr. Holland for several key portfolios in return for his support in the second round run-off when the two top-scoring candidates face each other. This could drive several centrists back into Mr. Sarkozy's arms.

Ms. Le Pen's vote will be more difficult to analyse. While it is true that a good number of her voters will support Mr. Sarkozy, a significant proportion of her National Front voters are likely to abstain according to pollsters.

Mr. Sarkozy may have riled the African-origin and Muslim population, (France has Europe's largest Muslim community, estimated at five million), but the Socialists are likely to draw little benefit from that since African-origin and Muslim voters tend to abstain. Some political observers say the abstention rate could be as high as 30 per cent or more.

For the moment, it appears that the odds are stacked in favour of Mr. Hollande. But the distribution of first round votes from the eight other candidates to the two front-runners will finally decide the outcome of May 6.

If the extreme-Left and extreme-Right cross each other out, the centrist, Francois Bayrou, could find himself in the position of kingmaker. No wonder that both Left and Right are making sheep's eyes at him. “It's nice to be appreciated,” was Mr. Bayrou's somewhat laconic reply to overtures from the two sides.

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