Has Sarko got one last trick up his sleeve on polling day?
A row over the publication of exit polls is threatening to mar the run up to the French presidential elections.

With less than 24 hours before France goes to the polls in the first round of voting, authorities have issued threats of legal action against anyone who intends to flout a ban on the publication of exit polls.

In France, exit polls - which are taken as an accurate reflection of the election result - are available shortly after 6pm when voting stations close in small towns and villages across the country.

But under current rules, French media are barred from publishing the surveys or even partial results until 8pm, the time when voting stations in big cities like Paris and Marseille officially shut.

If there is a widespread breach of the ban, France could even face the possibility of the elections being annulled as candidates have the right to call for a revote if they feel electors have been unduly swayed by the leaks.

The ban is designed to prevent late voters from being influenced by exit polls which could persuade them to change their preference or even dissuade them from voting at all.

But with the advent of social media, many believe the law is outdated and predict the exit polls will inevitably be leaked and published online by some of France's millions of Twitter and Facebook users.

The waters are muddied further because foreign media sites are exempt from the law, and some such as Belgium-based newspaper Le Soir have vowed to do "their journalistic duty" and publish the exit polls as soon as possible.

Websites of several Swiss and Belgian newspapers crashed in 2007 under the weight of French online visitors wanting to know the results before their own media had published them.

Earlier this week leftwing French daily Liberation added fuel to the fire by insisting it "reserved the right" to publish predicted results of Sunday's first round vote at 6.30pm. It invited viewers to visit the site at 6.30pm hinting that it would breach the law.

"Severely punished"

Authorities in France hit back Thursday vowing to fine any media outlet, including social media users, €75,000 if they breach the law.

Francois Molins, France's chief prosecutor warned that those who publish polls or predictions before 8pm "in whatever form" would be prosecuted.

The dilemma has not been lost on the presidential candidates themselves. Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande waded into the debate Thursday demanding anyone who ignores the law to be "severely punished".

"It will not change the result, but it might mean the turnout is lower," Hollande said. "It's a shame because it is more important the elections are legitimate and that there is the highest possible turnout, than it is to know who is going to win."

Hollande believes the problem could be resolved if all polling stations across the country closed at 7pm in future elections.

The incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy, who trails Hollande in the polls, said the laws were outdated and he would not be surprised if they were broken.

"This does not shock me, because the world has become a village," Sarkozy told Europe1 radio station. "We can't create a digital frontier between France and the rest of the world to prohibit others from communicating with France."

"Law is not trivial"

France's Polling Commission plans to outline the measures it will take against anyone breaching the ban on Friday.

"Just because the law is easy to break does not mean it is trivial to do it," the commission's secretary general Mattias Guyomar, told Reuters news agency this week.

Waddick Doyle, professor of communications at the American University of Paris believes voters would be influenced if they had access to the results.

"In the current election in France, people are going to vote strategically," Waddick told FRANCE 24. "For example, people who would rather vote for the far-left are voting for Francois Hollande simply because they are opposed to Sarkozy winning. If people knew about the results those strategies could change."

Waddick, like Sarkozy, believes the problem lies with "globalisation".

"The French state can no longer control information in the way it used to," he said. "It may be better to regulate this in some other way."