By Jim Bittermann, CNN Senior Correspondent
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PARIS, France (CNN) -- The French may have invented the word blase, but there is nothing at all apathetic about their presidential campaign.
Just days ahead of the April 22 first round in the elections -- which will reduce the field of candidates from 12 to two -- the campaigning has been marked more by another word of French origin ... passion.
In fact, in some cases, "nasty" might be the best description.
Recently, center-right candidate Nicolas Sarkozy -- who has been consistently in the lead -- accused his socialist opponent Segolene Royal of siding with cheats, because she rationalized over a violent clash between police and young people at the Gare du Nord train station.
Perhaps that's what prompted Royal to take the gloves off. She went on television and called Sarkozy "a liar" and asked rhetorically, "is a liar fit to become president of the republic?"
What is adding to the tension, perhaps, is the frenetic pace the campaigns have taken on. Both Sarkozy and Royal are hectically scheduled, ricocheting across the country in hopes of improving their standings in the poll. Most opinion surveys are showing voters preferences the front-runner's constant at around 31 percent for Sarkozy and 24 percent for Royal.
But what has them both looking over their shoulders is the third man in the race, Francois Bayrou, who is polling at around 19 percent. He is the anti-Sarkozy/Royal. They have fiery, polarizing personalities, he is the man of compromise -- but, some say, charisma-challenged.
Yet he is convinced, and apparently so are a number of his countrymen, that a compromiser is exactly what France needs right now after decades of right-left, often confrontational, leadership.
But wait, there are still nine more candidates, and at least one, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the man from the extreme right, could prove a spoiler. That's what happened in 2002 when from a field of 16 candidates he took second place --forcing voters on the left to, as the pundits put it, hold their noses and vote for the less right-wing Jacques Chirac.
All of this is filling the airwaves and keeping the bloggers working overtime.
The French capacity for endless political debate is being tested to the limit as the debate, discussions and diatribe go on through the day and long into the night. In the end, the question on most people's lips is: "What do you think?" That's because no one has a very firm handle on how this political confrontation is going end.
One reason, there is not a lot of confidence in the polls. Even the pollsters themselves say count them out of the prediction business; they only know what the political state of mind was yesterday.
So, with a new generation of politicians fighting it out in one of the most wide-open races in years, and two out of five people still not decided about who they will vote for, the political scene is like the fondue here -- bouillonante -- on the boil.
Main candidates, clockwise from top left: Royal, Sarkozy, Le Pen and Bayrou
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