PARIS French presidential frontrunner Francois Hollande accused rival Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday of trying to hoodwink voters with a promise to boost the pay of low-wage earners and halt excessive payouts to company bosses if re-elected.
The comments marked an intensification of the sparring between the two candidates that began in earnest last week when Sarkozy officially declared his candidacy for a contest that takes place in two rounds on April 22 and May 6.
"It's election time. And promises are fair game in election time, but not magic stunts or trickery, and yesterday it was trickery," Hollande said in an interview on state radio, referring to proposals floated by his rival the previous evening on prime-time television
Sarkozy pledged to ban bumper severance payouts to corporate bosses, let shareholders vote on top executives' pay and, for workers at the other end of the ladder, raise take-home pay by about 1,000 euros ($1,330) a year by scrapping payroll taxes.
His Socialist rival said the proposal would actually give the low-paid a mere 3 euros a month extra in their pockets since the president also proposed removing an employment subsidy.
Deriding Sarkozy over the pledge to curb greedy bosses, Hollande said: "I must be dreaming. We had five years where bumper payoffs and golden handshakes rose and now, at the end of his term, Nicolas Sarkozy is telling us 'this just isn't fair'."
In a campaign speech later in the day, Hollande took another jab at Sarkozy, criticising his now infamous celebratory dinner at plush brasserie Fouquet's on the Champs Elysees following his election victory in 2007.
"It's not the place I'm criticising, it's who he was with, the richest people in France and heads of its largest companies," he told supporters in Le Mans, west of Paris.
"And then he comes back and tells us he wants to do something about stock options and excessive pay?"
LIARS AND TRICKSTERS
The level of invective has risen amid tentative signs that Sarkozy is narrowing the gap in voter intentions for the first round, even though most polls still suggest Hollande has a comfortable advance in the runoff.
The incumbent has accused his rival of lying day and night, prompting Hollande's campaign manager, Pierre Moscovici, to say this is the dirtiest campaign since Francois Mitterrand became the first Socialist to win the presidency in 1981.
At the start of a speech to supporters in Lille, sitting at the heart of the decline in the industrial north, Sarkozy read a letter from a blue collar worker bitter at the prospect of his workplace closing and focused squarely on the need for people to work hard to get France out of economic crisis.
"We can only respond to this crisis though work," he said, after earlier visiting a vocational college for apprentice beauticians, photographers and florists and chatting to locals in a bar on the city outskirts.
He kept up his assault on Hollande, firing off some of his harshest jibes yet as he accused the socialist of being too sensitive to be president, after Hollande sounded peeved at Sarkozy's accusing him of trying to sound "like Thatcher internationally, and like Mitterrand in France."
Sarkozy, campaigning under the slogan, "A Strong France," said the Socialist decision to refrain from a parliamentary vote on creating Europe's permanent rescue fund showed they were a weak party.
"When I say he lacks courage, that's maybe hurtful for one so sensitive," Sarkozy joked, adding that to be president you need to be able to keep your cool, as he had when Hollande indirectly used the term 'nasty piece of work' to describe him in a chat to reporters.
"Frankly can you imagine Francois Hollande as president, really?" he said.
The two main candidates are zipping around the country to drum up support at an increasingly frenetic pace.
While Hollande headed to the dairy farming heartland of western France for campaign meetings in the mid-sized towns of Laval and Le Mans, Sarkozy travelled north, taking the train for the first time since he became president in 2007.
During a delay before departure, he told Reuters:
"When you're president there are rules. All the bridges the train goes over have to be guarded. It's very cumbersome, it costs hours of people's time. It complicates the task for everybody. As a candidate I'm not restricted by the same rules."
(Additional reporting by Matthias Blamont; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)