Presidential elections in France are entering the final phase as leading contenders, the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist challenger Francois Hollande, criss-cross the country in a bid to shore up support ahead of Sunday’s first-round poll.

Current surveys suggest that Hollande will win the election, which would make him the first left-wing leader of France since Francois Mitterrand’s second term ended in 1995.

France’s election consists of two rounds -- Hollande and Sarkozy are running a dead-heat for this Sunday’s first-round poll, but Hollande has a commanding lead in the second-round poll, which will be held on May 6.

The two candidates with the highest vote totals in the first round will face each other in the deciding second round.

Unlike U.S. presidential elections, the field in France is quite crowded.

The third most popular presidential candidate is Marine Le Pen, the head of the extreme right-wing, anti-immigrant National Front party. She is followed closely in the polls by radical leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon, with centrist Francois Bayrou in fifth place.

There are a number of other fringe and long-shot candidates also in the ring.

Should Sarkozy lose the election, he would become the first one-term French president since Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, who was beaten in 1981 by Mitterrand.

The major issues facing the French electorate are the economy (unemployment is running at 10 percent and there are rumblings over the strength of France’s sovereign credit); and race-immigration issues (Sarkozy has already tried to take away some the thunder on the far right by declaring that France has “too many foreigners”).

The recent massacres committed in and around the southern city of Toulouse by an Islamist militant named Mohammed Merah may also play an important role in the French voters’ decisions.

France has the largest Muslim population in Europe – numbering some 5 million people – leading Sarkozy to propose significant cuts in immigration, as well as a crackdown on illegal immigrants.

Regarding French finances, Hollande is opposed to austerity and wants to focus on growth, while Sarkozy steadfastly wants to enact spending cuts to appease the European Union.

The important thing is to put our public finances in order, Hollande told French radio.

They've been turned completely upside down these past years due to irresponsible fiscal policy and the crisis.

In retaliation, Sarkozy has shown his disdain for Hollande, who has never held a senior-level government office.

For 10 years [Hollande] was head of the Socialist Party, Sarkozy told RTL radio. He wasn't the head of very much. That's the truth.

Sarkozy also warned that relaxing austerity (as Hollande has proposed) would be disastrous for France.

Europe is convalescent. That's a reality. We can't afford any mistakes,” he said.

“The minute we ease up on cutting spending, reducing the deficit, reducing the debt, France will share the fate of Spain.

Laura Gonzalez-Alana, assistant professor of Finance and Business Economics at Fordham University in New York, said Both France and Sarkozy have lived in denial for a long, long time. Sarkozy has aligned with [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel's strategy of limiting the deficit, a needed measure; but without articulating growth initiatives, not even mentioning the need for specific growth plans until too recently.

On a broader basis, Gonzalez-Alana added that there is a view in Europe and also in the U.S. that France is struggling to cope with its painful reality, not being a leading financial powerhouse anymore.

They avoid acknowledging and dealing with the new explosive social reality of African minority neighborhoods, along with the existence of radical Muslim groups, she said.

France also has a middle class that cannot recognize the country they grew up in, while wondering how to prepare the next generation and their own retirement with an ever-shrinking purchasing power.

Gonzalez-Alana also referred to Sarkozy's poor poll numbers.

While his energetic persona was valued at the beginning of his time in office, the nepotism and corruption cases as well as his luxurious habits have badly hurt his image, she said.

He's now viewed as a skillful politician, but unprepared to stand on his own feet against Germany. The electorate just cannot believe he will change because most likely he cannot.

As for Sarkozy's principal challenger, Hollande, Gonzalez-Alana explained that his most appealing asset may simply be that he is not Sarkozy.

In these times of challenging economic circumstances, and with the increased insecurity due to social heterogeneity, the [native] French may have felt more inclined towards a conservative, rather than a socialist Hollande, she said.

But the recent shootings [in Toulouse] and increasing violence will not give votes to Sarkozy for being a problem-solver. Le Pen will most likely receive more support, although she is not viewed either as the solution to the growing diversity in France. Muslim voters are expected to vote Hollande, because of the erosion in Sarkozy's image, and also because they expect more tolerance, support and capacity for negotiation with a Socialist government.

What may benefit Sarkozy is that a great many French voters – as many as 25 percent according to some polls – are undecided even at this late date.