France holds the first round of a presidential election on Sunday. Following are short portraits of the four main candidates.
The right-wing former interior minister, who has led opinion polls since mid-January, is bidding to become the first son of an immigrant to rule modern France.
Sarkozy, 52, made his name as a hardliner fighting illegal immigration and crime. Those themes, along with the issue of national identity, found a strong echo in the latter part of his campaign as he shifted to the right in an effort to see off a strong centrist challenge.
Sarkozy nevertheless has sought to counter his strident image by littering his campaign speeches with references to love, tolerance and left-wing icons, offering a more human side in an effort to woo skeptical moderate voters.
But as the first round campaign drew to a close he was dogged by his inability to campaign freely in poor suburbs, whose enmity he earned during 2005 riots, rumours about the state of his marriage and controversy sparked by his suggestion of a possible genetic link to paedophilia.
Segolene Royal, 53, has risen over the past three years from a largely unknown regional leader to the first woman with a serious chance of becoming president of France.
Royal has proved her fighting skills before. As a teenager, she broke away from an authoritarian father, and throughout her career, she managed to outwit macho rivals to get to the top. She worked under former Socialist president Francois Mitterrand, later becoming environment, family and schools minister.
Royal has insisted on being a "free" woman in her campaign, promising leftist policies but also breaking with Socialist traditions. She suggested to send young troublemakers to army camp and called on voters to display a French flag on holidays.
A mother of four, Royal has played up her feminist credentials. Fans say she brings a breath of fresh air to politics, but critics doubt she will be forceful enough to lead France.
Initially written off as a no-hoper, centrist leader Bayrou has tapped into voter discontent over France's ruling elite and lies third in the opinion polls -- in a position to challenge the frontrunners for a place in the May 6 run-off ballot.
A devout Catholic and pro-European, Bayrou, 55, has always championed the centrist cause, but has traditionally been allied to the conservative mainstream and served as education minister under three successive rightist governments between 1993 and 1997. During this election campaign he has shifted left. A father of six, Bayrou has played up his down-to-earth rural roots, saying:
"I'm not part of the jet set, I'm part of the tractor set." His recent high profile guarantees him a strong position in the French political landscape whatever happens on April 22.
Jean-Marie Le Pen
Jean-Marie Le Pen, 78, the fiery far-right leader, is hoping to repeat his 2002 election success when he shocked France by making it to the second round.
The anti-immigration candidate has run for president five times since founding his National Front party in 1972 and has often been at the centre of controversy.
In 1987 he said that the gas chambers used by the Nazis were "merely a detail" of history and he was convicted and fined in 1990 for inciting racial hatred.
He has tried to tone down his rhetoric in this campaign but is facing a challenge from frontrunner Nicolas Sarkozy who has moved into his territory of immigration and law-and-order.
This has prompted him to brush up his extremist credentials, attacking Sarkozy's immigrant origins and saying that all races are not equal.