President Nicolas Sarkozy told an election rally on Sunday his policies had saved France from economic ruin and he alone had the courage to stick to reforms that would see the nation emerge stronger from today's turmoil.
Addressing 7,000 supporters in the port city of Marseille in the second rally of his campaign, Sarkozy accused his Socialist challenger Francois Hollande of being dishonest about the risks still facing France and vague about his policy plans.
The centre-right Sarkozy is grappling with disapproval ratings of 67-68 percent and opinion polls placing him 12 points behind Hollande for a May 6 runoff, where the pair are likely to face off following a first round on April 22.
We avoided catastrophe, Sarkozy said, adding that anyone who doubted his management of the crisis should look at the dire economic situation in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece.
France has not been swept away by the crisis of confidence that has ravaged so many countries. We have not seen the despair and violence that have set ablaze countries near our borders, he said, to cheers.
If we don't understand the crisis and the risks it creates for us, not only can we not judge the past but we can't imagine, or prepare for, the future. Denying the crisis is not only dishonest, it's dangerous.
Sarkozy is betting that his experience steering France and the euro zone through economic crisis will be his most effective weapon against Hollande, a textbook Socialist who is popular on the left but has no ministerial experience.
While Sarkozy is pledging structural reforms to aid flagging competitiveness and bolster growth and employment, Hollande's programme is based around raising taxes on the wealthy to fund investment in education, research and state-aided jobs.
Hollande's opponents have accused him of sending out mixed messages, sticking to a pro-market line before Anglo-Saxon audiences while declaring war on finance in a speech in France.
I maintain what I said about finance, Hollande said in a television interview shortly after Sarkozy's speech.
It is our enemy when it gets out of control, when it leads to market excesses and dominates the real economy, when it produces excessive compensation, stock options and bonuses.
The election campaign, which began in earnest last week when Sarkozy declared his candidacy, has turned into a clear two-horse race as support for far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist Francois Bayrou has waned.
Hollande also said he would not be deterred from public campaigning by an apparent death threat he had received. Police are investigating a letter containing a bullet addressed to the opposition candidate, Interior Minister Claude Gueant confirmed in a separate interview on Sunday.
It's not the first time, and I'm not going to change anything, Hollande said. I have the necessary protection and I'll continue to go out and meet the voters.
Sarkozy's 2007 election win was helped by support from the far right, and he sought to keep National Front voters on his side on Sunday by proposing to introduce some proportionality to legislative elections, which would benefit small parties like Le Pen's.
He also maintained a hard-right line on immigration, saying it must be controlled to protect the unemployed, and reiterated his opposition to euthanasia and gay marriage.
At her own rally in the northern industrial city of Lille, Le Pen urged right-wingers to vote en masse against Sarkozy on April 22 to knock him out of the May 6 runoff.
People of France, give Nicolas Sarkozy a red card. Let's get him off the pitch, she said as some 2,000 supporters cheered and brandished symbolic red cards.
She slammed an effort by Sarkozy on Sunday to brand himself as a candidate of the people rather than of the elite as he strives to reconnect with an electorate where many say they will be voting against him rather than for a rival candidate.
In a new survey by TNS Sofres, 54 percent of respondents said they were certain not to vote for Sarkozy in a runoff.
Sarkozy's bid to reach out to ordinary voters, underpinned by a pledge this week to hold regular referendums on policy, seemed to respond to criticism early in his term over his chumminess with the rich, who benefited from his tax cuts, and his penchant for luxury yachts and private jets.
The candidate of the powerful has become, with a stroke of media magic, the candidate of the people, Le Pen said. It's the ultimate insult from a failed presidency.
Sarkozy, well aware that his brash personality grates with many, has made a huge effort of late to appear more austere and erudite, and has kept his private life out of sight.
His wife Carla Bruni, a former supermodel whose romance with Sarkozy after he came to power shocked many, kept a low profile on Sunday, wearing a plain business suit. She called his speech very moving.
(Additional reporting by John Irish in Lille; Writing by Catherine Bremer in Paris; Editing by Kevin Liffey)