With the French economy tanking, President Nicolas Sarkozy is pursuing an unorthodox campaign strategy: depict the crisis as so bad and so global that his untried opponents could not deal with it, and hope the picture holds until election time.

The list of French problems - from record-high unemployment to bleak growth prospects, the threat of a rating downgrade and increasingly wobbly-looking deficit-reduction plans - would have many leaders in preservation mode, seeking to limit damage.

But Sarkozy has taken a different tack, seizing in a December 31 speech on fears over an economic crisis he described as planetary, unprecedented and the worst since World War 2.

The opposition Socialists, whose challenger for the April 2012 presidential election, Francois Hollande, has a clear lead over Sarkozy in opinion polls, criticised it as an underhand way of masking his failures while capitalising on public anxieties.

There was an admission of weakness, Manuel Valls, a spokesman for Hollande, said after Sarkozy's speech. This is Nicolas Sarkozy's approach ... it's to play on fears and fears of the crisis.

Analysts say Sarkozy's underlying message was that without his leadership, France would be in a far worse position than now, given the unprecedented global nature of the crisis in which France's problems are only a symptom.

For opponents, the implication is that they are not strong or seasoned enough to lead France through the storm.

Pascal Perrineau, a political analyst, summed up the strategy in a comment to Les Echos daily: If the crisis is bad, Sarkozy is beaten; if the crisis is very bad, he is elected.

Valls maintained that Sarkozy had brought France to the brink of recession. We've got a million more people unemployed since his five-year term began, he told a news conference.

Sarkozy vowed in his New Year's speech to use a January 18 meeting with unions, just three months before election day, to come up with some kind of agreement on improving labour market flexibility as a way to stem unemployment.

But Socialists sniffed at his chances of achieving reform so close to the election.

I don't think anyone is fooled, everyone knows he is a candidate and everyone knows that you cannot do in four months, on jobs, unemployment and job security, what he did not do in the first four years of his presidency, said Valls.

In his New Year address, a solemn Sarkozy urged the French to be stoical as he called for a new tax on imported goods to help shore up a welfare system which now relies mostly on social fees taken out of workers' paychecks.

The strategy we've been pursuing for the past 20 years is to cut labour costs to be more competitive. Has that produced any salary increases until now? No. Will it increase salaries in a crisis? Obviously not, said Socialist Party spokesman Benoit Hamon.

Jean-Luc Melenchon, head of the hardline Left Party, called Sarkozy's initiative a bad joke.

If we want to avoid firms moving away, we need to stop companies moving abroad to profit from 'social dumping', by which products cost less abroad because work is less paid and produced in awful environmental conditions, he told France Info radio.

(Reporting by Nicholas Vinocur and Brian Love)