French leader Nicolas Sarkozy faces a battle to avoid a shock first round exit in April presidential elections, a poll showed on Thursday, after far-right candidate Marine Le Pen closed to within two points of the incumbent.
A daily rolling poll of voting intentions conducted by Ifop for Paris Match showed Marine Le Pen on 21 percent, up one point and within striking distance of the conservative head of state.
The poll was the latest to confirm that Sarkozy is under pressure from Le Pen ahead of the April 22 first round, and raises the possibility of a repeat of the 2002 upset, when her father Jean-Marie Le Pen knocked out the mainstream Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin.
That result traumatised France, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets in protest marches against the rise of the far-right. And it ensured mainstream conservative Jacques Chirac won a crushing majority in the run-off ballot of more than 80 percent.
Socialist candidate Francois Hollande remains the frontrunner in this year's election with 27 percent, down one point. He is seen comfortably defeating Sarkozy in a head-to-head, should the president make it to the run-off, by 57 percent to 43 percent.
The latest poll, Sarkozy's lowest Ifop rating since July, is another headache for the president, whose re-election chances took a hit last week when France lost its coveted triple-A rating. Sarkozy had made its retention a point of pride.
A poll at the weekend by LH2 showed Sarkozy with 23.5 percent of the first round vote, down from 26 percent a month earlier, while Le Pen moved up 3.5 points to 17 percent.
Marine Le Pen, who replaced her father at the head of the National Front last year, has sought to broaden the appeal of the party beyond its traditional anti-immigrant constituency to attract a younger generation of voters.
Her anti-euro and protectionist stance has struck a chord with voters disillusioned by economic hardship since the global economic crisis triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, and the dragging euro zone debt crisis.
A recent poll showed some 30 percent of French people agreed with Le Pen's ideas.
(Reporting By Vicky Buffery; Editing by Jon Boyle)