PARIS President Nicolas Sarkozy declared his candidacy for a second term on Wednesday, seeking to overturn a wide opinion poll deficit with promises to get the unemployed back to work and to listen more to French voters by calling referendums on reforms.
The conservative leader ended the wait to officially launch his campaign against Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande by saying that, like a sea captain in a storm, he could not "abandon my post."
"Yes, I am a candidate for the presidential election," he told TF1 television, pledging a "strong France" which would protect its people from global economic turmoil.
Dozens of polls show Hollande would beat Sarkozy by up to 15 points in the May 6 runoff, but the president's allies hope his formidable campaigning style will allow him to narrow the gap before April 22's first round.
Sarkozy, battling a disapproval rating of 68 percent, aims to cast himself as an experienced leader who can drag France out of an economic slump and overcome the euro zone's turmoil.
Blaming the "unprecedented crisis" for derailing his agenda after he was elected in 2007 on a promise to return France to full employment, Sarkozy said he would press ahead with measures to cut public spending and make the economy more competitive.
"If you want to make me say I haven't achieved everything, that is for sure. I don't know anyone who has," Sarkozy said, in the nearest he came to apologizing for the unfulfilled promises of his five-year term.
Sarkozy seized on figures showing France's economy grew 0.2 percent in the last quarter of 2011 - outperforming neighboring Germany for the first time since early 2009 - as a sign his reforms were starting to work.
But with unemployment claims stuck at a 12-year high and a stream of news about companies closing or relocating production abroad, Sarkozy said he would focus on retraining the jobless to get them back to work - and this would be linked to eligibility for benefits.
"When one receives unemployment benefit, it will be because one is participating in a job training program," he said, adding workers would be obliged to retrain and accept a job in a new industry if there was nothing available in their old one - a move likely to anger France's powerful unions.
"APOLOGY, NOT CANDIDACY"
Having being accused of not listening to popular anger at a rise in the pensionable age and a tax reforms benefitting the wealthy, Sarkozy pledged to consult voters on controversial legislation if re-elected.
"One of my key commitments ... is to give the French people its voice back via the referendum," Sarkozy said, saying he would start with a consultation on his plans for unemployment benefits. "Each time there is a blockage, I will make the French people decide."
Hollande, at a rally in his childhood town of Rouen in the northern Normandy region, joked that nobody in France was surprised by Sarkozy's announcement of his candidacy and accused his adversary of spending the last five years tending to the wealthy at the expense of the needy.
"France will only be strong if it's fair," the 57-year-old said, repeating promises to toughen control of the banking industry, promote economic growth and restore confidence without surrendering to an old left-wing temptation of deficit-spending.
Sarkozy should, Hollande said, heed the message the late Socialist president Francois Mitterand told Valery Giscard D'Estaing in 1981 before unseating him: "Instead of presenting his candidacy he would do better to present an apology."
A Harris Interactive poll of first-round voting intentions, published on Wednesday, showed Hollande and Sarkozy each gaining one point at 28 and 24 percent respectively.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen was seen winning 20 percent and centrist Francois Bayrou 13 percent. In the second round, Hollande would beat Sarkozy 57 percent to 43 percent.
"Sarkozy still has a small chance of winning if he manages to pull the Socialist candidate into his issues of immigration and security, and as long as the debate does not focus on his personality or achievements," Harris Interactive polling chief Jean-Daniel Lévy told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Brian Love, John Irish, Geert De Clercq and Marine Pennetier; Editing by Paul Taylor and Alison Williams)