French voters go to the polls on Sunday (May 6th) to elect a new president. They face a stark choice between a conservative, former Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, and the Socialist Party's candidate, Segolene Royal, who is bidding to become the country's first female president. France's sluggish economy and the plight of the country's inner cities have dominated the campaign. Simon Marks reports from Paris.

If the opinion polls are correct, Nicolas Sarkozy is on the verge of becoming the next president of France. As the candidate of the ruling conservative party, the UMP, he has exuded confidence at well-attended rallies in the closing stages of the campaign.

And after being accused by his opponents of being too right-wing, too hasty, too temperamental and even too dangerous to govern the country, Sarkozy has told voters that he has been humbled by his experience on the campaign trail.

"I want to be the candidate of the people, and not that of the media, or the bureaucrats, or of this or that special interest,? he said. ?I want to be the candidate of the people because over the last few months I have seen how the people live, how they feel, and what they're suffering."

In the closing days of the election, Sarkozy has presented a softer image of himself to voters than they have seen before.

Two years ago, he was France's interior minister when 10 days of rioting broke out in several cities across the country. French people of immigrant descent protested their living conditions and their lack of opportunities, and the government declared a state of emergency to bring the riots under control.

Today, the suburbs are quiet. But their residents have not forgotten that Sarkozy once described the protesters as "scum".

Mac-West Hot is a French citizen whose parents were born in Cameroon. "He's just never done anything and I think he's a manipulator who is just looking for power.  I think it's all just personal ambition"

So, many inner city voters are expected to turn out in favor of Segolene Royal, the Socialist

Party's candidate. Sarkozy has branded her a 1960s-style leftist radical. In her quest to become

France's first female president, she portrays herself differently. "In the France that I dream of, there is a place for everyone.  No one will be excluded," she said. 

Royal's message has focused on the economy. She is pledging to increase the minimum wage, raise the state pension and modernize France while looking after people along the way. The Sarkozy campaign promises to bring about full employment in France by helping people pull themselves out of poverty -- no mean task in a country where the unemployment rate has not dipped below eight percent for 25 years.

Christine Ockrent is one of France's leading political commentators, and she will be anchoring election night coverage on French television.

"The French want to think that they are really craving for change, but at the same time they fear change.  Just like anybody else.  And this is a country where people ? it's very strange ? people are quite satisfied with their own lives, but they're terribly pessimistic about the future," she said.

Both candidates are competing for the crucial centrist votes that could swing the election. And both are vowing to change France, and better position it to play a leading role in a globalized world. But only one of them will get the chance to do so, after the votes are counted here on Sunday night.