PARIS (Reuters) - A majority of French expatriates support centre-right President Nicolas Sarkozy's bid to be re-elected in coming weeks, but the conservative lead is narrower than in recent years, according to an opinion poll published on Monday.
Around half a million expatriates are expected to vote, up from around 350,000 in 2007, in a two-round election on April 22 and May 6 that promises to be a close race between Sarkozy and Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande.
While national surveys have Hollande beating Sarkozy by at least eight points in the runoff, the survey for the expatriate newspaper Le Petit Journal and TV5Monde television had Sarkozy ahead by two points, the only poll so far to put him in front.
It puts Sarkozy 10 points ahead in round one, at 37 percent to Hollande's 27 percent. For round two it gives Sarkozy 51 percent to 49 for Hollande, a much tighter gap than in the 2007 ballot, when Sarkozy won 55 percent of the overseas runoff vote to 45 percent for the Socialist candidate.
"The shift in support this year does not look like it will be favorable to Nicolas Sarkozy," said Herve Heyraud, founder of Le Petit Journal, which has around 360,000 readers living mainly in Europe, Asia and Latin America.
"While traditionally the expatriate vote was considered to be conservative and liberal, so a sure thing for the right, we are seeing a clear narrowing."
Already suspecting that a segment of voters who used to be staunchly conservative are falling in more closely with French-based voters, as droves of young people join bankers and high-flying executives living abroad, Hollande has been pushing his campaign outside France.
Sarkozy's government has also been encouraging expatriates to vote through foreign consulates.
"Reaching French people abroad is very important, especially as more of them will take part in this election than before," Socialist campaign manager Pierre Moscovici said as he travelled with Hollande to address voters in London.
Of France's roughly 2.5 million expatriates, the government says 1.1 million have registered to vote, out of a total of around 44.5 million registered voters.
While turnout is typically lower abroad than in France, it is expected this year to exceed 2007's 42 percent.
Hollande has taken his campaign to various European capitals including Berlin, Warsaw and London, which with some 300,000 French residents has the same weight as a mid-sized French city such as Tours. French people living in Britain and Northern Ireland will be able to vote by post or at 30 polling stations set up in cities across the country from Edinburgh to Belfast.
Sarkozy campaigned overseas in 2007 but has largely let his five-year presidency speak for him this time around, although he has set up a dedicated campaign website for expatriate voters and appointed an overseas minister, Edouard Courtial, who has been visiting voters in various foreign cities.
For the first time this year, French expatriates can also vote for parliamentary deputies to represent them, after Sarkozy created 11 new foreign constituencies. They will test a new online voting system in the two-round legislative election in June.
(Reporting By Catherine Bremer; Editing by Kevin Liffey)