Sarkozy keen to ditch the glitz

FRENCH President Nicolas Sarkozy has repackaged himself as the candidate of the people, telling 12,000 supporters at the first major rally of his re-election campaign that he kept France strong by averting economic "catastrophe".

FRENCH President Nicolas Sarkozy has repackaged himself as the candidate of the people, telling 12,000 supporters at the first major rally of his re-election campaign that he kept France strong by averting economic "catastrophe".

Thousands of sympathisers could not fit into the 8000-capacity hall and had to watch the hour-long speech on screens as Mr Sarkozy's UMP party put on a show of force in Marseille, France's biggest city run by the Right.

A sea of tricolour flags, a blockbuster-style campaign anthem and the presence of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy attending her first campaign rally were designed to help the incumbent overcome polls predicting defeat to his Socialist rival Francois Hollande in elections beginning on April 22.

"I have come to speak to the people of France," he thundered, repeating that he had "succeeded in avoiding [economic] catastrophe" and his reforms had been "masked by the crisis". Anyone seeking proof that France was not as badly hit as others should ask a "Greek worker" or an "Italian pensioner", he said.

"To downplay the crisis is not only dishonest, it is dangerous," he said. "To tell the French: sleep easy, there is no crisis, there is no risk, is to play with the future of the French."

With 63 days until round one, the two mainstream candidates are opening up a lead on the remaining contenders.

A focus on conservative values and a promise of handing power to the people has helped Mr Sarkozy pull out of striking range of Marine Le Pen, the far-Right National Front candidate.

But it has not dented the lead of Mr Hollande, despite a difficult week for the Socialist, who was accused of doublespeak by attacking unregulated "finance" while reassuring a business audience in London.

Mr Sarkozy warned of the dangers of picking a candidate who "pretends to be Thatcher in London and Mitterrand in Paris", claiming the Socialists had back-tracked on issues from immigration to returning the retirement age to 60.

Despite the cheers, there was nothing like the fervour of Mr Sarkozy's 2007 campaign.

Sebastien, a UMP youth member, said: "Here it is easy to convince people as it's preaching to the converted, but when it comes to convincing the whole of France, that's another ball game."

Stuck with the nickname of "President of the rich", Mr Sarkozy is recasting himself as the underdog who the "system" the media, pollsters and the Left wants to evict. "I won't be the candidate of a small elite against the people," he said.

His strategy has infuriated Ms Le Pen, the self-styled "candidate of popular revolt". "The President of the rich, the little candidate of the fat cats, the bling-bling president would now suddenly be the candidate of the people?" she said in a presidential convention on Saturday in Lille. "Only imbeciles would be taken in by such a U-turn."