France's election race will pick up pace next week after being thrown off course by an Islamist gunman, with Nicolas Sarkozy finally unveiling his manifesto and opponents set to tear it apart.
Mohamed Merah's killings of three soldiers, a rabbi and three children prompted presidential candidates to suspend campaigning for several days from March 19 and the nation is only just emerging from a distressed daze.
With only three weeks to go before the April 22 first-round vote, Sarkozy says he is at last ready to unveil a fully fledged manifesto to compete with a weighty 60-point plan presented by Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande in January.
You'll have a global project, with financing, next week, Sarkozy told campaign reporters this week.
The manifesto will provide bait to Hollande to come back on the offensive after 10 days of treading water, sidelined as Sarkozy took command over the shooting crisis. Opinion polls show the conservative has eaten into Hollande's lead.
On launching his campaign last month, Sarkozy bet that his best chance of overcoming dismal popularity ratings and a strong desire for change was to announce his ideas one-by-one on TV and radio, or campaign speeches, for maximum impact.
As soon as you unveil an idea, it immediately sounds worn out, Sarkozy told reporters on Thursday, explaining his tactic.
Having vowed to halve legal immigration, deport more illegal immigrants, tax fiscal exiles and hold policy referendums, Sarkozy said this week it was finally time for a full manifesto complete with financial incomings and outgoings.
He is expected to launch one before he departs for a trip to the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion on Tuesday evening, and a campaign aide said a booklet was being prepared.
Don't worry, we are close to the moment when everything will be on the table. Have a little patience, Sarkozy's speechwriter Henri Guaino told Liberation daily this week.
After a tax-and-spend programme by Hollande, which focuses on raising taxes on companies and the rich to fund education and job creation, Sarkozy's programme is expected to contain ideas for structural reforms.
BACK TO ECONOMICS
The Toulouse shootings, the first attack by a lone al Qaeda-inspired gunman in France, have nudged Sarkozy up in the polls, as 71 percent of French people judge he handled the crisis ably.
Yet while he now stands 1-2 points ahead of Hollande in some polls for the April 22 vote, Sarkozy remains 8 points behind his rival in surveys for a May 6 runoff.
That is closer than the 12-point gap of a few weeks ago, but may not be enough to secure Sarkozy a chance of winning, especially as the debate starts to return to economic issues which polls show are much more key to voters than security.
The (Toulouse) drama introduced some extra gravity but has not changed voter priorities, which are employment, purchasing power, education and health, Hollande told the daily Le Monde.
A popular politician who headed his party for a decade, Hollande is determined to get the left into power after 17 years of conservative leaders, but is stuck with a bland stage manner.
Jean-Luc Melenchon, a charismatic hard leftist whose ideas nonetheless appeal to educated centre-leftists, has gained in recent polls to nibble at Hollande's heels; a trend that should not upset his second-round advantage, but adds pressure for him to regain momentum.
What gives me my energy is victory. I want to give a victory to this left which has been waiting for it for such a long time, Hollande told campaign reporters this week.
That energy has not generated many headlines, however, since Hollande landed three early campaign punches: saying high finance was an adversary that needed more regulation, that income over a million euros would be taxed at 75 percent and that Europe's fiscal treaty needs amending to add growth clauses.
His aides said further surprises should not be ruled out.
Sarkozy, who would benefit from keeping a focus on security, was on public radio on Friday to discuss a pre-dawn police swoop that arrested 19 suspected Islamic radicals.
He compared the impact on France of the shootings with the impact on U.S. citizens of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
What happened this morning will continue. There will be other operations which will enable us to expel from France people who have no business here, Sarkozy told Europe 1 radio.
Sarkozy, whose biggest handicap is people's dislike of his brash manner, was due to publish a book this month to endear him to voters, but aides are cagey about whether it will appear.
(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry and Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)