An opinion poll conducted by Harris Interactive for Le Parisien newspaper put the National Front leader Le Pen’s likely support in next year’s vote at 23 per cent, against 21 per cent for the centre-right’s Sarkozy.

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The survey was conducted online, a method sometimes seen as less accurate than telephone polling, and it presumed that Socialist leader Martine Aubry would be in the race.

International Monetary Fund director Dominique Strauss-Kahn has signalled he is preparing to declare himself as a candidate for the Socialist Party’s nomination – and other polls have shown him favourite if he does.

In any case, French presidential elections take place over two rounds, so even if Le Pen’s score is enough to get into the second round, centrist voters would likely rally to whichever mainstream candidate joined her there.

But, reservations aside, the big surge in far-right support since Marine Le Pen took over the party from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in January shows she could repeat his 2002 feat and knock out the third-placed candidate.

That prospect has sent shockwaves through the political establishment, and the left is training its fire not on the 42-year-old far-right challenger, but on Sarkozy – accusing him of stirring dangerous anti-Muslim opinion.

The National Front has always been an anti-immigration party, but under the younger Le Pen it has attempted to shed its racist image and concentrate the debate on the place of Islam in French society, picking up votes as it has done so.

Sarkozy and his UMP have followed suit, taking on the issue to stop support leaking to the Front and to force the Socialists off topics such as unemployment and purchasing power, where they have made inroads.

The government has passed a law banning the full-face Islamic veil – worn by only a tiny portion of France’s five to six million Muslims – from public places. The ban is due to come into effect next month.

Sarkozy last month declared that “multiculturalism is dead” and said he wanted to see a “French Islam and not an Islam in France”, while his party has called for a national debate on religious practice in a secular state.

Meanwhile, the president last week reached out to his conservative base, hailing France’s “Christian heritage” in a speech in a Catholic pilgrim town.

The left, and many Muslim groups, sense a cynical plot. They accuse Sarkozy of stirring up disputes that can only increase tensions in French cities, all in the service of 2012 presidential electoral mathematics.

“It’s doubtless a plan by Nicolas Sarkozy to boost the National Front in order to find himself in a head-to-head with them in the second round, and disqualify the left,” said Socialist parliamentary leader Jean-Marc Ayrault.

The left remembers all too well that in 2002, Le Pen senior bumped their man, Lionel Jospin, out of the running in the first round, only to be roundly trounced in the second by the right’s Jacques Chirac.

“What’s clear is that Nicolas Sarkozy has been playing double or quits for the past few weeks,” said Aubry, who should perhaps take some comfort from the fact that the Harris poll had her level-pegging with Sarkozy on 21 per cent.

But while the Socialists and the UMP slug it out, Le Pen has stolen a march on them. Elected leader of her party in January, she is already openly campaigning for the presidency.

No one expects Sarkozy to drop out, but he has yet to declare his candidacy, and his personal approval ratings are catastrophically low.

And the Socialists have yet to settle on a candidate. The party will hold a primary in October but the apparent front-runners – Aubry and Strauss-Kahn – have yet to confirm they will stand.