09/03/2012 09:14 GMT | Updated 08/05/2012 06:12 BST

Is Sarkozy Looking the Wrong Way?

François Hollande's visit to London last week suggested the Socialist presidential candidate is increasingly confident about his election prospects.

François Hollande's visit to London last week suggested the Socialist presidential candidate is increasingly confident about his election prospects.

But while Hollande's attention turns to the international stage, his rival, President Nicolas Sarkozy, is now firmly focused on the domestic contest ahead. Since Sarkozy's announcement on 15 February that he is running for re-election, he has kept up a constant assault on Hollande. The latter, who has led the polls since emerging in autumn to replace the disgraced one-time Socialist favourite, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, has been accused of 'lying morning and night', of being 'elitist', 'dangerous' and seeking to 'weaken France'.

The calculation by Sarkozy strategists is simple: their man must close the gap on Hollande soon if he is to develop a winning momentum for the two rounds of voting on 22 April and 6 May. So Sarkozy is hitting hard, hoping to land some damaging blows and seize the campaigning initiative as he did so effectively against the Socialist candidate, Hollande's former partner Ségolène Royal, in 2007.

Yet as Sarkozy slugs away, reminding observers of what a ruthless campaigner he is, it may just be that he is fighting the wrong opponent. Most polling interest is focused on a Sarkozy-Hollande run-off, which all polls score decisively in Hollande's favour. Yet this assumes that the first-round lead predicted for the President and his Socialist challenger will be confirmed in the voting booths on 22 April. That is far from certain.

This is the first presidential election in over thirty years not to be contested by the far-right Front National's Jean-Marie Le Pen. He is replaced by a more appealing - and potentially more dangerous - successor in his daughter Marine. Since assuming leadership of papa's party last January, she has sought to 'de-demonise' it, applying a rhetorical makeover and campaigning on mainstream issues like jobs, welfare and debt reduction.

Beyond the cosmetics, her core policies remain fighting crime, opposing 'Islamisation', closing borders and exiting the euro. With a deepening financial crisis, soaring unemployment and France's credit downgrade, Le Pen has found propitious conditions for her 'priorité nationale' agenda. She polls strongest in France's old industrial heartlands and has attracted up to 20% of voting intentions nationally, with support for her ideas recorded at over 30%.

What makes Marine Le Pen such a dangerous first-round opponent, however, is not these high levels of declared support. It is the undeclared support that eludes detection in the polls. These have long underestimated FN support through reluctance by many to admit far-right sympathies. In February 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen averaged under 10% of voting intentions to the Socialist Lionel Jospin's 22%; in April, he beat Jospin with 16.9 to 16.2% of the vote to contest the run-off against Jacques Chirac.

Though she trails Sarkozy in third place by up to 10 points, Marine Le Pen is counting on a similar underestimation of her true support. Add a strong centre-right challenger to Sarkozy in François Bayrou, a two-thirds disapproval rating for the President, and the fact that over one third of the electorate remains undecided, and the stage could be set for a big upset. The odds may be against it - but if Sarkozy looks the wrong way for round one, he could finish as a mere onlooker for round two.

James Shields is a professor of French Politics and Modern History at Aston University.