Vaiju Naravane

Paris: Over 60,000 persons crowded Paris' Charletty stadium for Segolene Royal's final campaign meeting, making it the biggest such gathering in this presidential campaign. If the crowds were indicative of Socialist anxiety over the outcome of the election, they were not, however, proof of a Socialist victory. Opinion polls continue to give the conservative candidate Nicolas Sarkozy a slight lead, though Ms. Royal has managed to bridge the gap somewhat. A poll on Wednesday showed Mr. Sarkozy beating Ms. Royal by 51.5 per cent of the vote to her 48.5 per cent.

Late on Wednesday, the two presidential candidates are to face each other in a televised duel, the outcome of which could sway undecided voters when they go to their polling booths next Sunday.

Thousands of women demonstrated in the streets in favour of the first woman candidate to come within a whisker of winning the top post in France where political life is clearly dominated by men. Most trade unions holding May Day celebrations criticised Mr. Sarkozy and it was plain, though they did not spell it out, that union leaders favoured Ms. Royal.

Ms. Royal upped the ante when she said at her rally that a Sarkozy victory could lead France into civil and industrial strife. "We are confronting a risk: the brutality in the conduct of public affairs could endanger social peace and civil peace," she said.

Ms. Royal is likely to hammer home that message in Wednesday's television debate, while attacking the former Interior Minister's record as a member of the outgoing government.


France has a tradition of TV duels between presidential candidates, which have sometimes swung the election for one of the candidates, but Ms. Royal is the first woman to take part in one. Mr. Sarkozy has rejected suggestions he should be more moderate during the debate just because Ms. Royal is a woman. "The idea that you should not debate with a woman in the same way that you do with a man is quite macho," he said.

Ms. Royal, an army officer's daughter, has presented herself as a nurturing figure and has proposed a leftist economic programme that would keep France's generous welfare system intact. Both candidates come from a new generation of leaders born after World War II, and both claim to represent a break from a discredited past. They also agree that France needs radical solutions to save it from a huge public debt, stubbornly high unemployment and seething discontent in the suburbs.

Far right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen told his voters to abstain in the second round. But a majority of FN voters are likely to vote Mr. Sarkozy.