President Nicolas Sarkozy's efforts to reconnect with a disgruntled French public in a high-energy re-election campaign appeared to be paying off as polls on Tuesday suggested his popularity was growing.
Sarkozy launched his campaign last week seeking to overturn widespread personal dislike of him and gloom over the economy.
A survey carried out by pollster LH2 found the number of people who said they liked rather than disliked him was up by 8 percentage points from early January, to 38 percent - his highest level in a year.
The surge appears to be translating into gains with voters. One poll released on Tuesday found Sarkozy had cut his Socialist challenger Francois Hollande's lead in voting intentions for the April 22 first round to only one point, Sarkozy's best score since August, although Hollande remains clear favourite for the May 6 runoff.
The straight-talking conservative was wildly popular when he won power in May 2007 but his showy and sometimes brash style soon grated on many people and he has battled with dismal popularity ratings for much of the past four years.
Sarkozy told his first two rallies last week that he wanted to be a president of all the people and would give the public a voice in policy by holding regular referendums. He sounded a patriotic note, speaking at length of his love of France.
Those speeches, along with a January 29 television appearance and a polished interview with a supportive news magazine, have visibly been very beneficial to him, LH2 said.
Separately, in a survey by TNS Sofres published on Monday, 76 percent of respondents found Hollande more congenial than Sarkozy, but 72 percent thought Sarkozy a better decision maker.
STEEL TO BEEF
Sarkozy kept up the pace on Tuesday, visiting a wholesale Paris food market to challenge accusations by far-right leader Marine Le Pen that households around the capital are unwittingly eating halal meat, then racing to the west coast and pledging to try to save an idled steelworks from closure.
The ArcelorMittal steel mill at Florange, northeast France, has been idle for months due to a dearth of orders, making it an election battleground as Sarkozy and Hollande both pledge to fix flagging industrial competitiveness.
Workers began occupying management offices at the plant on Monday, and are hoping that Hollande, who started campaigning weeks ago, might make a campaign stop there as their plight turns political.
Sarkozy said he had spoken to the plant's management by telephone and hoped the plant could be saved.
Visiting the Rungis food market, Sarkozy poured cold water on Le Pen's allegation that abattoirs supplying beef to the Paris area were using the throat-slitting methods required by Muslim buyers on all meat, in order to cut costs.
Sarkozy said that 2.5 percent of the 200,000 tonnes of beef consumed each year in the Paris area was halal, figures backed up at a news conference by the meat trade association SNIV.
Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire said a December 28 government decree that will go into effect in July, enforcing more transparency in abattoir methods, should help calm the controversy fanned by Le Pen after a TV documentary questioned the killing methods.
Fluctuations in Sarkozy's popularity do not always affect voter intentions, although a CSA poll gave Sarkozy 27 percent of the vote in the first round to Hollande's 28 percent compared with 26 to 30 two weeks ago.
In the poll, conducted on Monday for various French media, Sarkozy was seen losing in the second round with 44 percent to Hollande's 56 percent, but the margin was the smallest so far.
It put Le Pen's score in the first round marginally down at 17 percent, and centrist Francois Bayrou down two points at 11 percent.
A separate monthly poll by Ipsos-Logica, also for various French media, had support for Hollande and Sarkozy unchanged in both voting rounds, with Hollande leading the first round at 32 percent against 25, and winning the runoff by 59 percent to 41.
The poll had Le Pen unchanged at 16 percent in round one and Bayrou down 1.5 points at 11 percent.
(Reporting Marion Douet, Thierry Leveque and Leigh Thomas in Paris and Yann Le Guernigou in Ayrete; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)