“Apres moi la deluge,” — me or catastrophe — was the message French President Nicolas Sarkozy tried to hammer home to his electors on Sunday at his first public campaign meeting since he declared his intention to run for a second term.

Presidential elections in France are barely two months away, with the first round of voting to take place on 22 April. The second round run off between the two candidates polling the most number of votes will be held on 6 May.

Declaring that he had saved France from a fate similar to that of drowning economies such as Greece, Portugal or Spain, Mr. Sarkozy adopted an aggressive, accusatory and nationalistic stance, suggesting his rival, Socialist Francois Hollande, had failed to appreciate the gravity of the economic crisis and hinting that Mr. Hollande did not love France enough.

Mr. Sarkozy chose the radically right wing city of Marseille for his first public campaign meeting and came out all guns blazing. His wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy was in the audience, severely dressed down for the occasion in a bid to efface the couple's bling-bling image.

Mr. Sarkozy, who trails Mr. Hollande in the polls, defended his record saying he had been obliged to take painful measures but which had enabled the French to continue to enjoy benefits of healthcare and good pensions. He positioned himself as the President of the poor and the ordinary but is likely to have an uphill climb convincing voters that he has changed dramatically. Mr. Sarkozy is generally described as the President of the rich.

There is a deep public disenchantment with Mr. Sarkozy who came to power in 2007 promising to halve the 10 per cent unemployment rate and increase purchasing power. But with an extra one million unemployed and the economy growing at less then snail's pace, the election will not be a walk over for the President. He has therefore taken recourse to age-old right-wing rhetoric on immigration to woo voters from the far right.

Mr. Hollande, in sharp contrast to Mr. Sarkozy, was the picture of quiet calm during a televised interview just after Mr. Sarkozy's speech. Asked for his reaction after the President had virtually branded him a liar, Mr. Hollande said he did not wish to stoop “to the level of abuse and invective.” Only those unsure of themselves take recourse to such tactics, he suggested.

A split in the right wing vote could see Mr. Sarkozy bundled out in the first round itself. The extreme right leader Marine Le Pen has consistently been credited with 15 to 17 per cent of the votes in opinion polls carried out over the last three months. If she gets on to the ballot (she needs 500 endorsements from elected officials) she could make deep inroads into Mr. Sarkozy's vote. Another danger that awaits Mr. Sarkozy is the centrist candidate Mr. Bayrou who could wean away voters horrified by the President's flirtation with the extreme right.

But a similar fate could befall Mr. Hollande too — a split in the left-wing vote eliminated the Socialist candidate from the second round in 2002, a lesson the Left has never forgotten. But the Greens, the communists and the centrists could all nibble at Mr. Hollande's vote base in the first round.

The press on Monday slammed the President's speech which most newspapers said was long on rhetoric — the French versus the anti-French — and short on concrete programmes. “We were expecting a presentation of programmes to combat the crisis. Instead, we got a war between the French and the anti-French, republicans and their enemies. That is certainly not what is going to help voters forge an opinion.” wrote the northern regional daily Paris Normandie.

Left-wing Libération argued that the President was trying to “sell the idea” that despite his jet setter lifestyle and richie rich friends, “he is of the people”. Mr. Sarkozy's aim, Liberation said, was to make people “forget that the right, for the past 10 years, has had the power to resolve problems it's pretending to discover now, just two months before the election”.

Not unsurprisingly, right wing Le Figaro, which is owned by Sarkozy's friend Serge Dassault, admired the President for offering the French “a vision that demands a lot of France.”

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