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French presidential election should be a nail-biter

Eric Feferberg / AP

France's incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy strolls along the sea front after his last campaign meeting in Les Sables-d'Olonne, western France, Friday.

Every reliable pollster in France is predicting a blowout. Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande will beat President Nicolas Sarkozy – a center-right conservative – by 5 to 6 percent.

So, will this 2012 presidential election be a yawner? Neither candidate thinks so. On Friday – the final day of campaigning – both Sarkozy and Hollande zig-zagged across the country like a couple of bumble bees in a patch of fresh flowers.

Every vote at every stop still seemed to count. At the end of the day, an exhausted Hollande spoke to reporters from his Paris headquarters, saying that he never underestimated his rival’s resilience or conviction. "Nicolas Sarkozy’s big mistake," he added, "was to underestimate my own."

Sarkozy ended his election campaign –- which in his case only lasted a few months –- on live French TV.

Sounding almost docile, Sarkozy asked politely for each viewers’ vote to prevent the "catastrophe" of an Hollande presidency.

It was a far cry from the rotweiller who tried – and failed – at every turn to go for Hollande’s jugular during their one and only debate on Wednesday night.

Nicolas Sarkozy and his socialist rival Francois Hollande debate ahead of Sunday's election.

But even Sarkozy must be humbled by the Harry Truman-like challenge he faces: Pollsters say he needs to swing at least 1.5 million more voters his way to stand a chance.

But his options are running out – the right-wing leader of the National Front, Marine le Pen, called on her millions of supporters to "vote with their conscience," but said she would cast a blank ballot.

Then, Sarkozy’s last hope, the "centrist" Francois Bayrou, who won almost 10% of the vote in the first round, paid Sarkozy the ultimate insult. He announced he’d be voting for the left-wing Hollande.

Meet Monsieur Caramel Pudding, likely French president

Lionel Cironneau / AP

French Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande speaks during a meeting in Perigueux, Southwestern France, Friday.

Still, political analysts here like to remind me that French presidential elections, in a nation split pretty much in half politically, always go down to the wire.

French polls are notoriously wrong. And while his campaign team has turned it into a positive, we mustn’t forget that Hollande’s main attraction has been his very unemotional blandness.

He’s nicknamed "Flanby," after a popular soft-and-squishy cream pudding, a staple for French families.

Sarkozy fails to floor Hollande in France election television debate

Now that may be reassuring for many French who’ve had to endure five years of the mercurial, often explosive, Sarkozy, but are some having second thoughts?

"Hollande is not a swashbuckling, excited and excitable crisis manager, which is Sarkozy’s hallmark," said French analyst Francois Heisbourg. "And we don’t know actually how Hollande will react under stress. He hasn’t been in a position where he’s had to deal with a major international or national crisis. There is an element of the unknown.’’

Another unknown for many economists here is just how Hollande intends to untie this Gordion Knot: How, as he’s pledged, will be create 60,000 new teachers’ jobs, lower the retirement age from 62 back to 60, stimulate growth AND cut the deficit to zero by 2017 (the end of his presumed term)?

Other world leaders have attempted much less, and failed.

'A turning point'
International markets are watching, and wondering too, on a knife’s edge. "France is at a turning point,’’ said Heisbourg.

Hollande will either get the Euro-zone deal he needs from Germany’s Angela Merkel, the green light to stimulate growth in France, or France is in for years of instability. "And remember,’’ he warned, "if things go badly in France, that has twice the impact on America than if things go wrong in China.’’

Hollande, a wonk of the first order, can rattle off the inner workings of his economic plan - without notes – and with great conviction.

But Sarkozy – and many others – say it’s a fantasy.

"You’re simply spending more, taxing more, and creating more debt,’’ Sarkozy retorted at their debate. "And there isn’t a single country that would adopt your ideas for growth!’’

Still, Sarkozy’s chances look slim.

It’s perhaps why, on his website and on the final day of the campaign, a video appeared that seemed to stretch the truth.

It stated that many world leaders "respect and support" the French President, including Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and … U.S. President Barack Obama.

Hollande, reportedly, saw red. His team sent a barrage of phone calls to the U.S. Embassy, asking since when had Obama officially endorsed Sarkozy? Under pressure, an embassy spokesman released a statement, saying "The U.S. government does not support any candidate.’’

Sarkozy – desperate – is playing to his strengths – his flashy character, his tried and tested leadership, his palsy relations with European and U.S. leaders, his ego. But it’s an indication of just how fed up the French are with Sarkozy’s presidency that, despite all his flaws, Hollande - the ruddy faced bureaucrat who in a 30-year political career has never held even a minor cabinet post - is poised to become France’s first Socialist president in a generation.

Or is he? Don’t count Sarkozy out. A yawner? Maybe on paper. But come Sunday, this’ll be a nail-biter.

Jim Maceda, an NBC news foreign correspondent based in London, has covered French presidential elections since the 1970s.

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