Paris: A shock poll showed far-right champion Marine Le Pen leading the race for the French presidency on Sunday, as incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy faced claims he is fuelling anti-Muslim sentiment.
An opinion poll conducted by Harris Interactive for Le Parisien newspaper put the National Front leader Le Pen`s likely support in next year`s vote at 23 percent, against 21 percent for the centre-right`s Sarkozy.
The survey itself must be taken with a pinch of salt. It was conducted online, a method sometimes seen as less accurate than telephone polling, and it presumed that Socialist leader Martine Aubry would be in the race.
International Monetary Fund director Dominique Strauss-Kahn has signalled he is preparing to declare himself as a candidate for the Socialist Party`s nomination -- and other polls have shown him favourite if he does.
In any case, French Presidential Elections take place over two rounds, so even if Le Pen`s score is enough to get into the second round, centrist voters would likely rally to whichever mainstream candidate joined her there.
But, reservations aside, the big surge in far-right support since Marine Le Pen took over the party from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen in January shows she could repeat his 2002 feat and knock out the third-placed candidate.
That prospect has sent shockwaves through the political establishment, and the left is training its fire not on the 42-year-old far-right challenger, but on Sarkozy -- accusing him of stirring dangerous anti-Muslim opinion.
The National Front has always been an anti-immigration party, but under Le Pen junior it has attempted to shed its racist image and concentrate the debate on the place of Islam in French society, picking up votes as it has done so.
Marine took a bullish view of the poll results, telling French television she was in the race "to win”, saying the 2012 elections would bring a "surprise”.
"We are facing an aging political class, which has outdated solutions, hackneyed policies. The National Front represents hope for our people," she gushed on iTele channel.
The French are "fed up of solutions that aren`t. They see that over the past three decades their situation has been worsening, that they are being deprived of their country, their culture, and their hopes for the future."
Sarkozy and his UMP have followed suit, taking on the Islam issue in a bid to stop support leaking to the Front and to force the Socialists off topics like unemployment and purchasing power where they have made inroads.
The government has passed a law banning the full-face Islamic veil -- worn by only a tiny handful of France`s five to six million Muslims -- from public places. The ban is due to come into effect next month.
Sarkozy last month declared that "multiculturalism is dead" and said he wanted to see a "French Islam and not an Islam in France", while his party has called for a national debate on religious practice in a secular state.
Meanwhile, the President last week reached out to his conservative base, hailing France`s "Christian heritage" in a speech in a Catholic pilgrim town.
The left, and many Muslim groups, sense a cynical plot. They accuse Sarkozy of stirring up disputes that can only increase tensions in French cities, all in the service of 2012 presidential electoral mathematics.
"It`s doubtless a plan by Nicolas Sarkozy to boost the National Front in order to find himself in a head-to-head with them in the second round, and disqualify the left," said Socialist parliamentary leader Jean-Marc Ayrault.
The left remembers all too well that in 2002, Le Pen senior bumped their man Lionel Jospin out of the running in the first round, only to be roundly trounced in the second by the right`s Jacques Chirac.