French far-right leader Marine Le Pen has delivered a further blow to President Nicolas Sarkozy's hopes of re-election by refusing to endorse him and telling her six million supporters to make their own choice at Sunday's ballot.
"I will not grant my trust, or a mandate, to these two candidates," she told supporters on Tuesday at an annual commemoration of Joan of Arc, the national saint her group favours to the May Day celebrations held by international labour and leftist parties.
"On Sunday, I will cast a blank ballot."
Sarkozy, who faces off against Socialist Francois Hollande on May 6, needs many of the 17.9 per cent of voters who chose National Front leader Le Pen last week to switch to backing him in the runoff if he is to overcome first-round winner Hollande.
But Le Pen, who came third on April 22, told a rally in Paris on Tuesday that she personally would spoil her ballot paper in the second round by choosing to vote for neither of the two remaining contenders.
Le Pen did not further twist the knife for the conservative incumbent by urging her 6.4 million voters to do likewise. But
in leaving them to make their own minds up she left it unclear how many will stay at home or even vote for Hollande, who is running a six- to 10-percentage point lead in opinion polls.
"I have made my choice," she said. "Each of you will make yours."
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Sarkozy's right-wing supporters were to gather at the Place du Trocadero in Paris's posh 16th arrondissement to hear their champion give his last major speech in the capital before the vote.
Al Jazeera's Simon McGregor-Wood, reporting from Paris, said Sarkozy is entering a crucial 48 hours and is "possibly facing the end game" of his political career.
"[Sarkozy] desperately needs most of the votes that went Le pen's way. It's his only chance of succes," our correspondent said.
With the latest poll predicting a Hollande win on Sunday by 53 to 47 per cent, Sarkozy is anxious to gain some momentum from the rally and said he expected "tens of thousands of French" to take part.
Under fire for rallying his supporters on a day traditionally dominated by unions and the left, Sarkozy has hit back with attacks on state benefit recipients and appeals to the middle class.
|Marine Le Pen, eliminated in the first round, told supporters she would be voting blank for the second round [Reuters]
"I want to tell all of you who work, whether you are taxi drivers, tradesmen, business owners or employees, those of you who have bought a home or have a small inheritance, you have nothing to apologise for," Sarkozy said.
Sarkozy initially billed his rally as a celebration of "real work", before Hollande hit back that he was the president of "real unemployment".
Continuing his efforts to reach out to Le Pen supporters, Sarkozy also repeated that there are "too many" immigrants in France.
"I have never called for a closed France. I will never call for zero immigration, but the reality is that when you invite in more people than you can handle, you no longer integrate them," Sarkozy said.
"There is not enough housing, not enough schools, not enough work."
Confident of the left's support, Hollande was to stay away from the union march on Tuesday, with Martine Aubry, the Socialist Party secretary, to address the mass rally at Bastille.
The rallies will lead into the last key event of the campaign, a head-to-head televised debate between Hollande and Sarkozy on Wednesday night.
Analysts say Sarkozy, who unsuccessfully challenged Hollande to face him in three debates instead of the traditional one, is counting on his debating skills for a breakthrough in the polls.
Government spokesperson and Budget Minister Valerie Pecresse said the debate could prove crucial.
"We're in the last week and today the question is about credibility, not popularity," Pecresse told Radio Classique, adding that "none of Hollande's promises during this campaign has financing, none can be realised."
Hollande's campaign chief Pierre Moscovici said he hoped for the Socialist to win the debate, to be watched by tens of millions of French, but noted that historically the head-to-head has not had much impact on final results.
"Wednesday's duel must be dignified, but also a debate that Francois Hollande wins," Moscovici told RMC radio.
"The debate has so far never turned an election," he said. "This confrontation, that we owe to the French, is something they expect, it's more than a habit, it's a powerful moment in a presidential race."
The French left has not won a presidential election in a quarter of a century, but fears over low economic growth, rising joblessness and European Union-imposed austerity have given the Socialists a boost.
Many voters also disapprove of Sarkozy's flashy style during his five-year term and have welcomed the Hollande's vows to be a "normal president".
Sarkozy has derided Hollande's traditional tax-and-spend programme as potentially catastrophic for the economy, warning that a Socialist win would cause panic on the financial markets and spark economic chaos.