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France Braces for Right-Left Presidential showdown


France is collectively holding its breath, with just hours to go till the final decision in its most hard-fought presidential election in years.

The two candidates -- right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Segolene Royal -- closed their campaigns Friday at midnight in accordance with election rules, and began steeling themselves for Sunday's vote. 0506 02

Some 44 million people can take part in the election, which offers a clear choice between two starkly different programmes of right and left.

Sarkozy, the 52-year-old head of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), is proposing a radical economic agenda based on tax-cuts, limits to trade union powers and incentives to work harder.

Royal, 53, who is the first woman to have a serious chance of becoming French president, favours measures to safeguard the country's system of social protection and state intervention to create jobs.

The winner will take over from 74-year-old Jacques Chirac, president since 1995.

Both candidates are seen as representatives of a younger generation of politicians, promising new ideas to tackle France's runaway national debt, high unemployment and the festering discontent in high-immigration city suburbs.

Polling booths open at 8.00 am Sunday and close 12 hours later, with normally reliable projections due out immediately. Voting was taking place a day early in France's overseas territories in the Americas.

Sarkozy and Royal were the top two candidates in the first round and the two-week second round campaign has focussed on the 6.8 million people who chose the defeated centrist Francois Bayrou on April 22.

The highpoint of the campaign was Wednesday's televised debate between Sarkozy and Royal, which was watched by some 20 million viewers.

Royal showed an unexpectedly aggressive streak in the head-to-head -- at one point accusing Sarkozy of "political immorality". Her attacks won high praise from supporters, but surveys subsequently showed most voters found Sarkozy the more convincing.

Continuing to trail in the polls, Royal launched a fierce personal assault on Sarkozy Friday, saying his election would provoke violence in the high-immigration suburbs that were the centre of riots in 2005.

Referring to his "dangerous candidacy," Royal said she had a "responsibility to issue an alert over the risks ... regarding the violence and brutalities that will be triggered across the country. Everyone knows it but no one says it. It is a kind of taboo."

Sarkozy responded that "never in the history of the Fifth Republic have such violent and threatening comments been heard. Saying that if you vote for a candidate there will be violence is simply to reject the right to democratic expression."

French newspapers Saturday are banned from reporting polls or comments by either candidate.

Copyright © 2007 AFP.

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