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As French election goes into high gear, it's Mr. Hot vs. Mr. Cool

President Sarkozy is in full attack mode against Socialist frontrunner François Hollande, bringing a rarely seen element to French campaigning.

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Yet Hollande has been the only candidate to refuse an interview with Le Figaro, the center-right daily seen as pro-Sarkozy, saying he had the right to choose whom to speak with. Later, Hollande said he will talk to “all media” after Round 1.

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France has 10 candidates vying for the April 22 elections, which narrow the campaign into a two-person race for May 6. Sarkozy and Hollande both are hovering at 28-29 points in current polling for Round 1. French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) polls show that the French see Sarkozy as more presidential than Hollande by a wide margin, but that Hollande is seen by a wide margin as more understanding of the French and sympathetic.

Biggest momentum is at opposite ends of the spectrum

The greatest movement or interest in the elections have been generated on the far-right and far-left wings of the political spectrum. Yet nationalist Marine Le Pen and former Trotskyite Jean Luc Mélenchon both hover around 15 percent and appear not to be in a position to enter the final round.

Recent days have witnessed a surge on the left, created by Mr. Mélenchon, who has held sensational rallies across the nation punctuated by red flags and the singing of the old communist “Internationale.”  What worries Hollande, his team says, is that the fiery Mélenchon could scare centrist voters away from the pragmatic and reasonable center-left that Hollande promises to govern from.

Analysts say Sarkozy’s strategy is to turn the race into a bruising duel after April 22. His longstanding idea is to use April 22 to create momentum, a “strong dynamic,” to surge into the lead May 6, says Eric Dupin, a political analyst for Rue 89 and author of “Travels in France.”

Sarkozy was photographed Monday in athletic gear riding a racing bicycle uphill, a visual contrast with Hollande, who, while losing 40 pounds in the past year, usually appears in dress suits.

The French president must overcome a visceral unpopularity among French. His message of late has been that the French may not like him, but are safer with him. Sarkozy appeared at first to have benefited from the shocking killing rampage of a self-styled French-born Islamist radical in Toulouse, an event that extended into roundups of suspected Muslim radicals and the blocking of Islamic clerics from coming to France.

That seemed to change the focus of the campaign from French economic woes to the threat of Islam, though in recent days the fear factor seems to have abated as a benefit. Yesterday Sarkozy told French TV interviewers that the Toulouse shooting remained for him the central moment of the French campaign so far.

“Sarkozy is the man of the show … and at the moment, he tries to use all the issues he can find… to appear to be the boss. That’s politics,” says Karim Amellal, an Algerian-born novelist and media company owner. “It is not surprising [Sarkozy] is going after Islam and right wing topics. He had a perfect tragic event to work with, and he has used it," he says. "But we don’t know the result yet.”

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