French socialist Francois Hollande launched his presidential campaign in earnest on Tuesday, accusing Nicolas Sarkozy of running the economy onto the rocks as weeks of shadow boxing ended in his strongest attack yet on his conservative rival.
Stung by criticism he was failing to tackle Sarkozy head on, the usually avuncular Hollande decried his opponent as a president of the privileged whose five years in office had been marred by economic and moral blunders.
I can already hear Nicolas Sarkozy's panicked lieutenants arguing that it would be unwise to change captains in the middle of a storm, he wrote in a two-page open letter to voters carried in the left-leaning Liberation daily.
When the ship has already run aground, this can only make you smile, said Hollande, who won the Socialist nomination late last year after attempted rape charges, later dropped, forced the then IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn out of the race.
The more aggressive campaign tone came as Hollande's opinion poll lead over Sarkozy has narrowed ahead of a first round ballot on April 22, with centrist Francois Bayrou enjoying a bump in support.
The incumbent president is a strong performer on the campaign trail and aides hope his handling of the euro zone debt crisis, which has won him grudging support from critics, will allow him to claw back the deficit.
In a sombre New Year's message, Sarkozy pledged to find ways to pull the economy out of stagnation but urged voters to be stoical as he worked on structural reforms with unions to boost jobs and protect France's cherished welfare state.
Derided by left-wing rivals as a pedal-boat captain, Hollande, who has never held ministerial office, has sought to add some international gravitas to his bid for the presidential Elysee Palace with a series of trips to major European capitals.
But his strategy came unstuck in Berlin during a speech that was seen as clumsy, notably by slamming the idea, being pushed by the French and German governments, of making all euro zone countries enshrine budget-balancing rules in their constitutions.
The rule aims to force future governments to bring public deficits under control and thus help Europe bring its debt crisis under control.
Hollande returned to the attack in a television appearance late on Tuesday, criticising a plan by Sarkozy's government to raise sales tax before the election in order to lower companies' social welfare contributions and boost jobs.
I don't want the French ... (to) be hit with 3 or 4 points of sales tax because there's been a decline in revenues, he told France 2 television.
Hollande's campaign director Pierre Moscovici last month predicted an end to the phoney campaign and the beginning of a new robust phase of campaigning.
In 2012 there is going to be, from the very first days of the year, a new phase, one of decisive political confrontation, he wrote in a blog post.
Pollsters say Hollande's move aimed to shore up support among the Socialists' traditional supporters, dismayed by his lacklustre performances to date.
He was slow off the ramp, he had lost momentum, said Stephane Rozes, director of the CAP political consultancy. Now he has to re-engage with the nation and come up to the front line by getting more personally involved in the campaign.
Sarkozy's camp is pressing hard on what it sees as its rival's key weakness -- a tendency toward abstract speech and lack of a clear election platform.
Reading this open letter, you wonder if Francois Hollande would have done better to write an essay about being and nothingness to start the new year, Thierry Mariani, a Sarkozy ally and secretary of state for transport, said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Brian Love and Patrick Vignal; Editing by Jon Boyle)