PARIS Presidential rivals Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande will stage competing rallies in Paris on Sunday in a last ditch battle for votes, just a week before elections that could propel the left into power after 17 years of conservative leaders.
Conservative incumbent Sarkozy will address supporters in the Place de la Concorde, the city's biggest outdoor square famous for being the site where King Louis XVI was guillotined during the bloody aftermath of the 1789 Revolution.
Socialist Hollande, favorite to win the election, will simultaneously address his supporters on a vast esplanade in front of the Chateau de Vincennes, a royal castle on the city's eastern edge which a mob of workers tried to raze in 1791.
The open-air contest, a week before the first of two election rounds on April 22, comes as Sarkozy is struggling to overcome a tide of resentment over the sickly economy as well as a deep dislike among many voters of his presidential style.
A rash of opinion polls this week suggested Sarkozy's re-election hopes are crumbling as a recent spurt in support appears to evaporate. Latest voter surveys show Hollande regaining momentum for the first round and winning a May 6 runoff by between 9 and 14 points.
While Hollande's team seems visibly relaxed, Sarkozy's aides are fretting that what started as a high-impact campaign has lost its vim. After pushing a hard-right stance on immigration and trade protection to try and vacuum up far-right votes, Sarkozy is now insisting he stands for voters of all stripes.
"The Place de la Concorde has been touched by all of France's history, it's not about the left or the right," Sarkozy's campaign spokeswoman Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet told Reuters this week, as Sarkozy urged his supporters to come out in droves.
"It's a place where all French people can gather," she said of the square, which is nonetheless known as being the place conservatives traditionally celebrate election victories.
Hollande, whose aides have hit out at the conservatives for scheduling an outdoor rally to clash with theirs, indicated his choice of venue reflected his less combative campaign style.
"I am in front of an esplanade and I am not asking for a head to be cut off, I am simply asking for another one to be chosen," Hollande said ahead of his rally.
ECONOMY IS BATTLEGROUND
Sunday's rallies are the climax of a week during which Sarkozy has warned that an Hollande victory could spur a crisis of confidence among financial markets, prompting Hollande to accuse him of encouraging speculation to serve his own political ends.
The simultaneous speeches will be the closest the two rivals come to attacking each other in real time, with no face-to-face televised debates planned until after the April 22 vote.
While Sarkozy's manifesto is based on trimming spending and enacting structural measures to bolster industrial competitiveness, Hollande's tax-and-spend program would take a year longer to reach a balanced budget. Sarkozy says Hollande's economic proposals could see France suffering the economic problems that have hit Greece or Spain.
The Socialist's pledge to tax income above one million euros at 75 percent has rattled liberal observers, even though the measure would be largely symbolic and bring in limited revenue.
Hollande has also raised eyebrows by criticizing a recent European Union accord on debt and deficit control, which has been credited with calming markets over the euro zone's debt crisis. He wants to renegotiate it to add pro-growth clauses.
Sarkozy's manifesto has also come under fire from liberal editorialists, with the Economist weekly criticizing a lack of concrete structural reform plans. Sarkozy lashed out at the Financial Times during a television debate this week over an editorial that praised Hollande's ideas on growth, saying he disagreed with the newspaper's "Anglo-Saxon" views.
Sunday's rallies should be rain-free, according to weather forecasts, but turnout could suffer from the disruption caused by a marathon running race the same day as well as the fact that many families are leaving town for the school Easter holidays.
(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry; Editing by Andrew Osborn)