Paris - Nicolas Sarkozy apologised for his mis-steps on Friday, the final day of campaigning in France's presidential election, while his main rival Francois Hollande was increasingly confident of victory.
The latest polls ahead of Sunday's first round point to a resounding win for the Socialist in the 6 May run-off against Sarkozy, dogged by criticism his flashy and overbearing style lowered the standing of France's head of state.
"Perhaps the mistake I made at the start of my mandate is not understanding the symbolic dimension of the president's role and not being solemn enough in my acts," a contrite Sarkozy told RTL radio.
"A mistake for which I would like to apologise or explain myself and which I will not make again," he said, insisting: "Now, I know the job."
The vote is seen by many as a referendum on the unpopular Sarkozy, who feted tycoons and married supermodel Carla Bruni during his five-year term, rather than a chance to choose France's first Socialist president since 1995.
The latest survey before campaigning and opinion polls were to be banned at midnight on Friday said Hollande would win 29% of votes to Sarkozy's 25.5% before the pair meet head-on in the second round.
Hollande is on course to win the final vote 56% to the right-winger's 44%, polling organisation Ipsos forecast.
Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen could take 16% in the first round, the far-left's Jean-Luc Melenchon 14% and centrist Francois Bayrou 10%, IPSOS said.
Ipsos' Brice Teinturier said that if the figures proved accurate, "for the first time since the start of the Fifth Republic, five candidates will have double-figure scores".
He nevertheless noted voter "porosity and uncertainty" and added that far-right voters initially drawn to Sarkozy were now abandoning him.
Even pro-Sarkozy newspaper Le Figaro said "confidence has swept into Francois Hollande's camp" where "the candidate is having difficulty concealing his optimism", to the point of denigrating potential second-round allies.
Amid speculation that he could reach out to Melenchon or Bayrou to ensure his victory in the run-off, Hollande has said there would be no between-round deals, such as tapping a prime minister from among his rivals.
"There is no place in a presidential election for negotiations between parties. No bartering, no concessions, no exchanges," Hollande said.
Sarkozy's campaign spokesperson Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet played up French voter unpredictability, with polling organisations themselves saying they had never seen "such erratic predictions so close to the first round".
"I think that there will be big surprises," she told Le Parisien newspaper, thanks to "the silent French, who don't express themselves in the media or on the internet".
Hollande's campaign chief Pierre Moscovici told the same paper that voters had a "powerful and tranquil expectation of change" and those backing other left-wing candidates in the first round would end up voting Hollande.
"Hollande will become the candidate of the Socialist Party and of its allies: He will be the candidate of the left and of change," Moscovici said.
Sarkozy was briefly buoyed by security fears in the wake of last month's al-Qaeda-inspired killings in Toulouse and has vowed to cut immigration, but the economy has been the overwhelming issue throughout the campaign.
Unemployment is at a 12-year high, the eurozone debt crisis has shaken the economy and French citizens' purchasing power is diminishing.
Hollande took a statesmanlike stance on Friday, saying France would join UN-backed military intervention in Syria and calling for the European Central Bank to cut interest rates.