French election race tightening three weeks from vote, poll shows

(From left to right), Emmanuel Macron, Marine Le Pen, Francois Fillon and Jean-Luc Melenchon.
(From left to right), Emmanuel Macron, Marine Le Pen, Francois Fillon and Jean-Luc Melenchon. PHOTOS: AFP, EPA, REUTERS

PARIS (REUTERS) - France's presidential election race is looking tighter than it was seven days ago with three weeks to run before voting starts, an opinion poll showed on Saturday (April 1).

First round voting intentions for the frontrunners, centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, both slipped by one percentage point to 25 and 24 per cent respectively, while third placed conservative Francois Fillon gained two points to 19 per cent, and the far left's Jean-Luc Melenchon one point to 15 per cent, the BVA poll said.

In a further signal of continued unpredictability, 38 per cent of people either could not say how they would vote, or may yet change their minds. That was down two percentage points from a week earlier, but still a high percentage by French election standards.

The poll showed independent Macron had solidified his voter base, with 63 per cent of those opting for him sure of their decision, up 8 points from a week ago and his highest certainty score since campaigning began in earnest in February.

However, Le Pen still had by far the most solid voter base, with an unchanged 81 per cent of her voters certain to pick her.

Shock outcomes like the election of Donald Trump as United States president and Britain's Brexit referendum vote have fed expectations that Le Pen's anti-euro, anti-immigration platform will sweep her to power in France.

The poll though, like others this year, showed Macron beating her with 60 per cent of votes in the May 7 second round.

Fillon's recovery from the lows that followed a fake work scandal surrounding his wife puts him within 5 points of Le Pen and 6 points of Macron, with some voters previously tempted to abstain deciding to go for him after all, BVA's commentary said.

BVA put Melenchon's climb since a strong performance in the first TV debate on March 20 partly down to more of his natural sympathisers deciding to vote.

However it noted that official Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon, who is in fifth place on 11.5 per cent and also has hard left policies, could be vulnerable.

Hamon's base of sure voters is just 45 per cent, it noted, and many of them could end up being split - about equally - between Melenchon and Macron.

An Odoxa survey on Friday showed Melenchon just one percentage point behind Fillon on 16 per cent, but 8 points ahead of Hamon.

The Odoxa poll was is the first to suggest a dynamic in which France's two-party system that has been in place for 30 years alternating between the Conservatives and the Socialist party could be swept aside.