PARIS Voters in Frances overseas territories began casting ballots for Nicolas Sarkozy or Francois Hollande on Saturday in a presidential election that could affect everything from Europes efforts to fight its debt crisis to how long French troops stay in Afghanistan.
The final polls show Sarkozy making up ground on his Socialist challenger before todays election in France but still suggest a Hollande victory. Campaigning and the release of poll data have been suspended until the results of the run-off election come in this evening.
Sarkozy predicts a surprise and Hollande is urging voters to avoid complacency as the bitter campaign neared its climax, driven by fears about joblessness, immigration and Frances economic future.
Hollande spent the weekend in Tulle, the town in central France where he has his electoral base as legislator and one-time mayor. Greeting shoppers in a market, Hollande said he was confident, but not sure when asked about his chances of becoming Frances next president.
We wait for Sunday, I speak only about Sunday. Monday is another day, Hollande said.
Sarkozy was spending the day at home with his family in Paris.
Under a quirk of French electoral rules, balloting got under way Saturday in Frances embassies and overseas holdings, starting in tiny Saint Pierre and Miquelon islands south of Newfoundland in the North Atlantic Ocean.
The elections outcome will impact Europes efforts to fight its debt crisis, how long French troops stay in Afghanistan and how France exercises its military and diplomatic muscle around the world.
Sarkozy, disliked by many voters for his handling of the economy, promised he could come out victorious. Speaking on Europe-1 radio Friday, he said much will depend on whether French voters bother to cast ballots in an election that polls have always predicted Hollande would win.
But he also sounded increasingly philosophical and prepared for possible defeat.
Asked Friday what he would do if he loses, Sarkozy said simply, there will be a handover of power.
The nation follows its course. The nation is stronger than the destiny of the men who serve it, he said. The fact that the campaign is ending is more of a relief than a worry.
Hollande urged his followers against complacency. Victory is within our grasp! he said in a rousing rally in the southern city of Toulouse on Thursday night.
Polls released Friday and Thursday show the gap between the candidates shrinking but results still solidly in Hollandes favor.
A poll by the BVA agency shows 52.5 percent support for Hollande and 47.5 percent for Sarkozy. A poll by the agency CSA shows 53 percent for Hollande and 47 percent for Sarkozy.
For both polling agencies, that was the smallest spread registered in the campaign, which a few months ago saw polls predicting Hollande winning by a crushing 60 percent to Sarkozys 40.
The margin of error on each poll was plus or minus 2-3 percent. BVA questioned 2,161 people by telephone Thursday. CSA questioned 1,123 people by telephone Thursday.
The polls were carried out after the candidates only debate Wednesday night, which Sarkozy had hoped would be the knockout blow he needed.
Hollande has won the support of a prominent centrist who won 9 percent of the vote in the first round of presidential elections, Francois Bayrou. Bayrou said Thursday night he would not give his voters specific guidance for Sundays vote but that he will cast a ballot for Hollande.
Bayrou criticized Sarkozys campaign rhetoric as too violent. Sarkozy has sought to lure far-right voters who supported anti-immigrant candidate Marine Le Pen in the first round.
Sarkozy kept it up anyway Thursday at a big campaign rally in Toulon.
We dont want different tribes, we dont want ethnic communities to turn in on themselves, we dont want (non-citizen) immigrants to vote, he said.
Critics of Sarkozy have often faulted him for his brash style, alleged chumminess with the rich and inability to reverse Frances tough economic fortunes and nearly double-digit jobless rate.
Hollande has promised more government spending and higher taxes including a 75-percent income tax on the rich and wants to re-negotiate a European treaty on trimming budgets to avoid more debt crises of the kind facing Greece.