France vote: Sarkozy defends record at first big rally

The BBC's David Chazan in Paris: "President Sarkozy said his government had averted catastrophe"

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy has defended his economic record at the first big rally of his re-election campaign, held in Marseille.

Despite rising unemployment and the loss of France's AAA credit rating, he said his government had averted catastrophe at a time of crisis.

Often accused of elitism, he insisted he wanted to lead all French people.

Socialist rival Francois Hollande, who has led in opinion polls, has accused him of "giving in" to Germany.

According to the latest polls, Mr Hollande's lead has narrowed slightly to about six points but he remains the favourite to win in the final vote on 6 May.

'Avoiding despair'

Mr Sarkozy delivered his speech in Marseille four days after announcing he was standing for re-election.

Analysis

Mr Sarkozy lived up to his reputation as a strong political campaigner with an assured, confident speech.

Everything about the event was smoothly orchestrated, including the appearance of his wife, the former supermodel Carla Bruni, dressed more plainly than usual in an effort to shake off her glamorous image and be seen as a more of a traditional mother.

Mr Sarkozy has often been criticised for being too flamboyant and close to the rich, and he said he wanted to be the leader of all French people, not just the elite.

He told the crowd he was not afraid to take difficult decisions such as raising the retirement age and cutting the number of state employees.

"If I hadn't made these decisions, where would we be today? That's the question!" he shouted, to cheers and applause.

"France wasn't carried off by a crisis of confidence. There hasn't been the despair or violence that has touched so many other countries."

Speaking to France's BFM TV channel, Mr Hollande challenged the idea that France was better off than its neighbours, noting that Germany was faring well and that doing better than Greece was hardly cause for celebration.

He also argued that Mr Sarkozy, whom he described as "the outgoing candidate", had "given in to [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel".

In another election speech on Sunday, Marine Le Pen, candidate of the National Front and placed third in opinion polls, poured scorn on Mr Sarkozy.

The far-right leader told a rally in Lille that the idea Mr Sarkozy had become "the people's candidate" was an "insult to the intelligence of the very same people", according to Le Monde newspaper.

Correspondents say the election has turned into a clear two-horse race as early strong support for Ms Le Pen and also the centrist candidate, Francois Bayrou, has waned.

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