Marseille // France is on the brink of choosing a socialist president for the first time in nearly a quarter century who plans a controversial tax on the nation's rich.
Amid warnings from conservatives that he will be a hostage to the far left, François Hollande, the pollsters' clear favourite to win the two-round election, wants a 75 per cent tax on all annual earnings above €1 million (Dh4.8m).
Most opinion polls in the run-up to Sunday's first round have Mr Hollande, 57, a parliamentarian and senior Socialist Party official who has never been a minister, running neck and neck with Nicolas Sarkozy who is a few months younger and has been the centre-right president since 2007.
The comfortable gap of at least 10 points that the polls predict for Mr Hollande in the May 6 decider depends to some extent on votes he is expected to pick up from Jean-Luc Mélenchon, once a party colleague but now standing for a far-left front including communists.
Mr Mélenchon is widely credited with fighting a dynamic campaign but has advanced a raft of radical policies that include taxing every centime of earnings above €360,000 per annum, symbolically 20 times the level to which he also proposes to increase France's minimum wage.
Although Mr Mélenchon has no realistic chance of winning, he has steady support putting him third or fourth, with between 12 and 15 per cent of the vote, among the 10 candidates, according to polls conducted this week.
Alain Juppé, the foreign minister and a former prime minister, identified what he saw as the threat posed by the far left when asked if Mr Mélenchon's rise in the polls could be good news for the right by splitting the Socialist vote.
"It is bad news for France and a trap for François Hollande," Mr Juppé told the conservative dailyLe Figaro. "For Mr Mélenchon will prove very demanding and many electors of the centre will not want to vote for a candidate [Mr Hollande] who would be his hostage."
Mr Juppé also poured scorn on one of Mr Hollande's pledges, to order an immediate 30 per cent pay cut for the president and ministers.
"Formidable!" Mr Juppé said. "The French economy can take off again thanks to this measure. But let's be serious: to finance his promises, Hollande needs to find a little more than €100 billion, and this measure would bring in €2 million."
The Sarkozy camp is counting on a late surge of support for a president who, despite disappointing many who elected him on bold promises of reform in 2007, has provided leadership with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, in the battle to save the euro and offers greater prudence in his stewardship of the French economy.
France last elected a Socialist president in 1988 when François Mitterrand, who initally appalled business and the finance sector but later adopted more moderate polciies, won his second term. He died in 1996, eight months after leaving office.