PARIS French presidential rivals Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande staged competing open-air rallies in Paris on Sunday in a last-ditch bid for votes a week from elections that could propel the left into power after 17 years of conservative leaders.
Addressing crowds massed at outdoor squares 10 km (6 miles) apart, the conservative incumbent and the Socialist challenger who could oust him both claimed a turnout of 100,000 people. Sarkozy brought forward his speech to just before Hollande's in an apparent bid to dominate live TV coverage.
A rash of opinion polls suggests Sarkozy's re-election hopes may be crumbling as a recent spurt in support appeared to be evaporating a week from the first-round vote on April 22. Latest surveys show Hollande regaining momentum for the first round and winning a May 6 runoff by between 9 and 14 percentage points.
"The future of our country is at stake," Sarkozy told supporters gathered in the Place de la Concorde, the city's biggest outdoor square and the place where King Louis XVI was guillotined during the bloody aftermath of the 1789 Revolution.
"One thing should count today. Where do we want to go from here?" he said, following warm-up speeches by political aides.
Addressing left-wing voters at 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, Hollande said he could feel the country was on the brink of change.
"I feel a great hope mounting from the depths of our country. A calm, firm, lucid hope of a change for the better," he said in a speech broadcast after live coverage of Sarkozy.
"I am making an appeal to you today. You must come out and vote. Give me the force to win the election on May 6," he said.
Whereas Sarkozy stuck to recorded music and stayed behind crowd barriers, the blander but affable Hollande regaled his supporters, some of whom brought picnics, with live music from a Guadeloupean-style zouk band and mingled with the crowd.
The open-air contest came as Sarkozy is struggling to overcome a tide of resentment over the sickly economy and a widespread dislike of a presidential style some see as arrogant.
Open-air rallies are unusual for mainstream candidates in France, and the two rivals seemed to hope to mimic the buzz created by radical left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who has drawn huge crowds to his outdoor meetings.
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 attract 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 said.
"It's a place where all French people can gather," she told Reuters, speaking of the square, which is nonetheless known as the place where conservatives traditionally celebrate victories.
Graphic of polls, click on: r.reuters.com/was36s
Election online: tinyurl.com/7hpt4vy
ECONOMY IS BATTLEGROUND
The near-simultaneous speeches are the closest the two rivals have come to a real-time contest, with no face-to-face televised debates planned until after the April 22 vote.
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 not asking for a head to be cut off, I am simply asking for another one to be chosen," Hollande said this week.
The rallies were the climax of a week during which Sarkozy warned that a Hollande victory could spur a crisis of confidence among financial markets, prompting Hollande to accuse him of encouraging speculation to serve his political ends.
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, striving to portray himself as the safest pair of hands for the French economy, 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 1 million euros ($1.31 million) at 75 percent has rattled liberal observers, even though the measure would be largely symbolic and bring in limited revenue.
Hollande also has 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.
Hollande aide Bernard Cazeneuve said the Socialist rally stood for "hope" whereas Sarkozy's rally was about "fear".
A pipe-smoking, beret-wearing Sarkozy supporter called Jean-Jacques did not disagree. "There is no choice but Sarkozy. He has experience and his results were decent despite the crisis. Hollande is a black hole, a nightmare," he said.
Sarkozy's manifesto has come under fire from liberal editorialists who have criticized a lack of structural reforms.
In his speech on Sunday, Sarkozy said he wanted to open a debate on extending the mandate of the European Central Bank to support economic growth.
($1 = 0.7644 euros)
(Additional reporting by Nick Vinocur; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Michael Roddy)