France's Sarkozy in last-ditch effort as campaign

Nicolas Sarkozy made a frantic pitch to woo voters Friday on the final day of campaigning before a first-round French presidential vote his Socialist rival Francois Hollande is tipped to win.

Trailing in public opinion polls ahead of Sunday's first round and a May 6 run-off, incumbent right-winger Sarkozy urged his supporters to flock to the polls to prevent a Socialist victory.

"Go all of you Sunday to cast your ballots, because each ballot will build our victory, because we need everybody," he told thousands of supporters gathered in the southern city of Nice.

"The forces arrayed against us are so great that only the French people can say 'Here is the choice we are making, the choice for a strong France,'" Sarkozy said.

At his own rally in northeastern France, an increasingly confident Hollande called on voters to seize a historic moment by electing a Socialist president for the first time since Francois Mitterrand last won in 1988.

"At every moment in history, a mission, a responsibility is thrust on a generation. In 1981, the left took responsibility for the country," he told several thousand supporters, referring to Mitterrand's first election victory.

"Now it is up to you, to all of us, to take this decision... I want it to be remembered that in 2012 a historic choice was made," Hollande said at the rally in the Champagne-Ardennes region.

The vote is seen by many as a referendum on the unpopular Sarkozy, who feted tycoons and married supermodel Carla Bruni during his five-year term.

Sarkozy has struggled to play up the reforms of his presidency, hit hard by the global economic downturn, and has been dogged by criticism that his flashy and overbearing style lowered the standing of France's head of state.

Sarkozy even began the day apologising for the perceived mistakes of his term in office since 2007.

"Perhaps the mistake I made at the start of my mandate is not understanding the symbolic dimension of the president's role and not being solemn enough in my acts," a contrite Sarkozy, 57, told RTL radio.

"A mistake for which I would like to apologise or explain myself and which I will not make again," he said, insisting: "Now, I know the job."

Hollande was quick to seize on Sarkozy's remarks, saying his opponent's mea culpa was too little, too late.

"I won't wait until the end of my term to say I made mistakes at the beginning. That's too late. I will try to adopt the proper behaviour, if the French give me the chance, right from the start," the 57-year-old said.

The final eight polls released ahead of the official end of the campaign at midnight (2200 GMT) Friday showed Hollande winning the first round with an average of 28 percent support, against 26.4 percent for Sarkozy.

The Socialist was also on course to win the second round with 55.7 percent of the vote.

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen was third with an average of 15.75 percent, followed by Communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon of the Left Front with 13.75 percent and centrist Francois Bayrou with 10.1 percent.

Sarkozy's camp has dismissed the polls in public, but many of his key supporters are reported to be privately resigned to a period in opposition.

The incumbent's aides have also warned that winning the first round would be crucial for the incumbent to pick up enough momentum to make a real challenge in the run-off.

"Nicolas Sarkozy doesn't believe in opinion polls," said his spokeswoman Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet. "He feels that they do not reflect the reality of this campaign."

But pro-Sarkozy newspaper Le Figaro admitted "confidence has swept into Francois Hollande's camp -- the candidate is having difficulty concealing his optimism."

Sarkozy was briefly buoyed by security fears in the wake of last month's Al-Qaeda-inspired killings in Toulouse and has vowed to cut immigration, but the economy has been the overwhelming issue throughout the campaign.

With almost 10 percent unemployment, the eurozone debt crisis has shaken the economy, and French citizens' purchasing power is diminishing.

Hollande has vowed to balance France's budget by 2017 while boosting taxes on the rich, increasing spending and creating thousands of state jobs.

He has scored populist points by declaring the world of finance his "enemy", vowing a 75-percent tax bracket for incomes over a million euros and promising to re-negotiate the EU's fiscal austerity pact to focus on growth.

Sarkozy hit back with predictions a Socialist victory will spark a "massive crisis of confidence" among investors and a speculative run on the euro.

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