Marcus Evans Group | Worldwide Headquarters | American Offices | Latin America | European Offices | African / Asian Offices

Nicolas Sarkozy saved France from ‘catastrophe’, 7,000-strong rally hears

French president launches bid for second term at meeting in Marseille with flags, music, slogans and a cheering Carla Bruni

Nicolas Sarkozy told his first major rally in his re-election campaign on Sunday that he had saved France from “catastrophe” during the financial crisis and the only way to save the country from economic meltdown was to give him a second term.

The 7,000-strong meeting in Marseille marked a return to the political showmanship and verbal violence of Sarkozy’s campaigning style. There was sea of tricolore flags, dramatic music, a new election slogan – “a strong France” – and a cheering Carla Bruni at her first political rally.

Despite four years of record unpopularity, disappointment in his reforms and the fact most French view his tenure negatively, Sarkozy tried to position himself as the “protector” of the nation while launching personal attacks on the Socialist frontrunner François Hollande, whom he accused of downplaying the crisis.

The presidential election is certain to be fought on economic issues. Unemployment is nearing 10% and there are around 1 million more people out of work than when Sarkozy took office. Public debt is huge, France has lost its triple-A credit rating and the government has been forced to cut spending and raise taxes.

But Sarkozy told supporters his leadership had ensured the country was better off than its neighbours. He repeatedly used the word “catastrophe”, suggesting if he had not been in power, France could have gone the way of Greece, Spain or Italy.

“A weak France cannot protect French people,” he said. “France has resisted, France has held out!” He did not apologise for his record, but said: “I don’t claim that we succeeded in everything. But I want to say we’ve avoided a catastrophe.” He accused his opponents of “hiding” the crisis and being “dangerous” to France.

As Sarkozy struggles to overturn Hollande’s lead in the polls, French media reports have speculated that Sarkozy’s advisors may take inspiration from George W Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign. The US president was very low in the polls but ran a hard, populist campaign, tapping into fear from 9/11. Sarkozy could similarly build on fear of a worsening economy.

Sarkozy and Hollande have both said their priority is to restore public finances and whoever wins the presidency will face austerity and the struggle to plug the deficit.

Hollande proposes higher taxes for banks, big firms and the wealthy, which he would use to shrink the deficit and raise funds for education and state-aided job creation.

Hollande has said of Sarkozy: “He’s the president of the crisis, I’m the president of getting out of the crisis.”

Sarkozy used the Marseille rally to continue a line of attack against Hollande accusing him of being two-faced. “Where is the truth when you pretend to be Thatcher to London and Mitterrand to Paris?” he said. This was a reference to a Guardian report about a lunch with British and US press last week, where Hollande, who said at the start of his campaign that his only adversary was “the world of finance”, stressed the need for financial regulation and control of the markets while brushing aside claims on the British right that he was a threat to London’s economy.

Asked about a repeat of the widespread concerns among the right and international business when the Socialist François Mitterrand came to power in 1981, Hollande said that the political landscape of the French left had changed since the 1980s, the Communists now had less influence, and the left had shown it could run the economy when in power.

Hollande also harshly criticised Tony Blair’s free-market economic liberalism and lack of market regulation. But Sarkozy accused him of backtracking on how to deal with the financial world.

Hollande used a prime-time TV appearance to shoot back that he would not get stuck in “brawls, quips and invective”, adding: “I don’t want my country to submit to finance gone mad.”

The Marseille rally also witnessed Sarkozy’s continuing bid to reinvent himself as a “the candidate of the people”. For the last five years the president’s record-breaking unpopularity has rested on his image as a “president of the rich” who gave tax-breaks to the wealthy, protected the oligarchy, flashed his expensive tastes and his showbiz marriage to Bruni, a former supermodel, while cutting himself off from the working class. In Marseille, he said: “I won’t be the candidate of a little elite versus the people.”

Hollande has styled himself as a “Mr Normal” and an “Ordinary Guy” and Sarkozy appears to be trying to move on to the same territory.

Unveiling his new campaign headquarters at the weekend, dressed in a casual black polo-neck, the president reinforced the “man of the people” concept with a sparsely decorated office featuring CDs of the popular French rocker Johnny Hallyday on a shelf. The French press also pointed to the presence of Sarkozy’s trademark cigar box.

Bruni, a multimillionaire heir to an Italian tyre company fortune, has also moved to bolster the image of the couple as everyday folk. In an interview to a popular TV magazine she said she often watched France’s most popular, Marseille-based soap-opera while holding her young baby. She also said she liked a popular reality show about lonely French farmers looking for love, and that Sarkozy had converted her to watching the Tour de France. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds