Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme-Right National Front party in France, on Monday refused to endorse either outgoing President Nicolas Sarkozy or his Socialist challenger Francois Hollande in next Sunday's presidential poll in France.

Ms. Le Pen was speaking at the Front's traditional May Day rally when extreme-Right supporters honour nationalistic icons like Joan of Arc. Ms. Le Pen caused a major upset in the first round held on April 22 when she won 17.9 per cent of the vote, the highest ever by an extreme-Right candidate, including her father, the famously vituperative Jean-Marie Le Pen

“For me both Sarkozy and Hollande are equally bad for France. I shall not ask you to vote for one or the other but according to your sentiment and your sensibility. As for me, I shall be casting a blank ballot next Sunday and come June, it will be Blue Marine,” Ms. Le Pen said alluding to the legislative election in June during which she hopes to consolidate her position as a leading figure of the Right.

May Day this year was contentious and electorally charged with rival rallies being held by the trade unions with the support of the Left parties at the Bastille, the symbol of the French Revolution, and by Conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. In a rousing campaign style speech which hammered home Gaullist principles of hard work, courage, strength, resistance and dignity, Mr. Sarkozy stole the show from under the nose of his rival Francois Hollande.

Not wishing to appear too closely linked to the unions, Mr. Hollande held a memorial meeting in honour of the former socialist Prime Minister, Pierre Beregovoy, who committed suicide on May Day 19 years ago in the latter's hometown of Nevers. Beregovoy, a remarkably efficient Premier, was a working class lad who rose through the ranks to reach the top, and Mr. Hollande wished to underline the fact that the Socialists were not all big spenders but could also be efficient managers.

His message, however, fell flat before the grandiose spectacle of Mr. Sarkozy declaiming the virtues of work and honour from the Trocadero in Paris against the carefully and ingeniously selected backdrop of the Eiffel Tower and France's famous Military Academy beyond. Mr. Hollande and the Socialist party machinery made a serious tactical mistake by organising a small-town meeting for the Socialist challenger, leaving the way open for Mr. Sarkozy to stage a political extravaganza at Paris' famous Place de Trocadero, packed with his flag-waving supporters.

TV news channels such as BFM or Itele were astoundingly biased in their reporting of the days' events. While they broadcast clips of Ms. Le Pen's declaration and the entirety of Mr. Hollande's rather tired speech, they gave huge coverage to Mr. Sarkozy and almost completely blacked out the massive May Day parade in central Paris where an estimated 200,000 strong crowd, mainly Left-wing supporters, had gathered to celebrate the working class and the power of the unions.

“Their red flag is the flag of a party [the Communist Party] our tricolour is the flag of the nation,” Mr. Sarkozy derided the unions, calling upon them to “drop the red flag and serve France!” It was a masterly performance greatly enhanced by a masterly management of the information media, especially the main 24-hour news channels, most of which belong to close friends of Mr. Sarkozy.

Mr. Sarkozy who last week began to narrow the huge gap that has consistently placed Mr. Hollande in the lead is now likely to make a bigger impact on undecided voters with this meeting. He trails the Socialist 47-53 and it is quite likely that by Sunday he will have trimmed down Mr. Hollande's lead even further. On Wednesday, the two men face each other in a two-hour-long televised debate. Mr. Sarkozy, who is a remarkable orator and is at his best when his back is against the wall, could well emerge the victor. The outcome still hangs by a thread.

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