In a cloud of backbiting and barbs, France has rounded into the home stretch of a neck-and-neck election campaign that is largely a referendum on President Nicolas Sarkozy’s handling of the European economic crisis but that also hangs on the conservative leader’s often abrasive style.

If Sarkozy gets reelected, he will have scored one of Europe’s major political triumphs. The 57-year-old former lawyer would be the first European leader in charge during the meltdown to survive an election, setting him apart from prime ministers in such major European Union countries as Spain, Portugal, Italy, Britain and Greece who have fallen victim to the slump and faded into obscurity.

But so far, to the surprise of many, Sarkozy has remained the challenger. After trailing in opinion polls for more than six months, in recent weeks he has barely pulled even with his main rival, Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party, for the first round of voting scheduled April 22. The same polls have steadily predicted an overwhelming Hollande victory in the two-man runoff May 6.

Neither Sarkozy nor Hollande will have maneuvering room for sweeping initiatives if elected, given the severity and longevity of Europe’s economic slump. At least at the outset of his five-year mandate, analysts agreed, the next French president will have to concentrate on creative penny-pinching to lower debilitating deficits and a dangerously high public debt that amounts to almost 90 percent of the economy.

Moreover, Hollande has built a reputation as a moderate and is not seeking a mandate to nationalize the economy, as was the case when Francois Mitterrand led the Socialists to victory in 1981. In foreign affairs, Hollande has pledged to pull French troops out of Afghanistan by the end of this year if elected, two years ahead of NATO’s schedule, but says he will abide by Sarkozy’s 2009 decision to return France to the alliance’s integrated military command.

A decisive factor in the race, specialists explained, will be which of the two top contenders can win second-round support from voters who, in long-standing French tradition, cast first-round “protest” ballots for minor candidates on the far left, far right or center and two weeks later cast “useful” second-round votes for a candidate who can actually win.

The permutations of loyalties from one round to the next are notoriously hard to predict, they warned, despite the polls consistently giving an edge to Hollande. But many voters who choose Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front in the first round are expected to swing behind Sarkozy in the second round. Similarly, most voters who opt for Jean-Luc Melenchon and his radical Leftist Front in the first round are expected to back Hollande in the second round.

That leaves a bloc of centrist voters — nearly 10 percent of the total, according to polls — who will back Francois Bayrou of the Democratic Movement in the first round. If all goes as expected, they will divide their support for the second round. The way their choice splits out between Sarkozy and Hollande on May 6 is likely to send one or the other to the Elysee Palace.

“The difference, as always, is the centrists,” said Roland Cayrol, a veteran political scientist attached to the prestigious Political Science Institute in Paris.

Cayrol, in a rough estimate based on past voter behavior, calculated that about a third of the centrist vote is likely to abstain in the second round. Another third is likely to back Hollande, he said, and the final third will go for Sarkozy.

The obstacle for Sarkozy, he added, is that adding the National Front vote and a third of the centrists to his own supporters in the Union for a Popular Movement does not make a second-round majority. But, he said, adding the Leftist Front, supporters of several minor-left candidates and a third of the centrists to his own Socialists would bring Hollande over the 50 percent mark.

A lack of polish

Another part of the second-round problem for Sarkozy, according to Cayrol and other analysts, is that many voters do not like his personal manner. The president, who never attended the National Administration School that serves as a finishing academy for most French officials, tends to speak in less polished language than his colleagues and almost always approaches a political issue as a cockfight rather than a conciliation of opposing views.

A famous example, caught on video, came when a man in a greeting line pulled back from Sarkozy, signaling he did not want to shake hands. “Beat it, you little jerk,” Sarkozy responded.

Thierry Vedel, a specialist at the Political Science Institute, said Sarkozy’s sometimes off-putting attitude constitutes one of the reasons many National Front or centrist voters who should be natural allies cannot be counted on to cast their ballots for him in the second round. Indeed, Sarkozy-bashing may be one of Hollande’s biggest selling points, he and others suggested, eclipsing complaints that the Socialist candidate seems to lack presidential stature.

For instance, a terrorist shooting spree by a French youth of Algerian origin in March was expected to boost the polls for Sarkozy, who has made security and immigration controls major issues and who shines in times of crisis. However, the analysts pointed out, the episode came and went without significantly raising Sarkozy’s standing in the polls.

Grabbing headlines

To a large degree, the economic crisis faded as an issue in the final weeks of the campaign, giving way to personal attacks and ephemeral speeches on minor issues designed to grab headlines on 24-hour news channels. Several candidates vied this week, for example, to see who could offer the most attractive deal on how to get a driver’s license.

More broadly, however, Sarkozy and his supporters have tried to portray Hollande, also 57, as too inexperienced, too minor-league and too reckless to become captain of France during the economic tempest. When European stock markets showed signs of renewed nervousness this week and interest rates rose for borrowing by Spain, they immediately suggested that the possibility of a Hollande victory was the problem.

With Hollande as president, Sarkozy warned, the markets could “bring France to its knees.”

French commentators, in reaction, have bemoaned the frothy campaign in one breath but, in another, have leaped on the candidates’ live-time exchanges. L’Express, a weekly newsmagazine, headlined its coverage of the campaign’s final week with, “Lies, low blows, cowardice, crazy promises.”