The French presidential election campaign got under way in earnest on Thursday after Nicolas Sarkozy staked a claim to be the only leader strong enough to see France through unprecedented crisis.
Mr. Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, the right-wing President's Socialist rival and the frontrunner in the opinion polls, have been sparring for months, but Wednesday's official declaration marked the start of the campaign proper.
The French leader's campaign website, emblazoned with the slogan “A strong France”, went online on Thursday as he took to the campaign trail with a public meeting and visit to a cheese-making plant in the French Alps.
“The French people must understand that if France is strong, they will be protected. France is a shield for each of us,” said Mr. Sarkozy on Wednesday, saying he felt it was his duty to stand and see France through.
Nearly 11 million viewers had seen his declaration on France's main evening news broadcast, shortly after Mr. Hollande had staged a televised rally for 10,000 cheering supporters in his northern hometown of Rouen.
Polls consistently show the pair as clear frontrunners and, with less than 10 weeks to go until the first round of voting on April 22, the election is shaping up to be a classic two-horse race between right and left.
Far-right champion Marine Le Pen, who inherited the anti-immigrant National Front from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen last year, may have an outside chance of knocking out Mr. Sarkozy to snatch a slot in the second-round run-off.
But she is still a little way behind him in polls and is struggling to raise the 500 signatures she needs from mayors and regional councillors to make her candidacy official, with a month to go to the filing deadline.
Meanwhile, minority right-wing candidates are dropping out. Christian conservative Christine Boutin dropped out this week and endorsed him, and centre-right former defence minister Herve Morin followed suit on Thursday.
Neither was polling at more than one percent, so their backing may not make an immediate difference to Mr. Sarkozy's numbers, but it removes a distraction and strengthens his claim to be the one clear leader of the centre-right.
But this may not be enough to win him a second five-year term. The latest poll conducted just before Wednesday's declaration forecast showed that Mr. Hollande will beat Mr. Sarkozy in the May 6 run-off by 57 per cent to 43.
Having come to office vowing to boost employment and household spending power through economic liberalisation, Mr. Sarkozy is running for re-election with joblessness hovering near 10 percent and amid an EU debt crisis.
With Mr. Hollande attacking his austerity programme and mocking his promises, Mr. Sarkozy's new pitch is to cast himself as the tough realist steering the French ship though rough waters while Mr. Hollande dreams of times gone by.
Shortly after his declaration, right-wing lawmakers approved a plan to raise the sales tax in order to fund a cut in employer social contributions, a measure that Mr. Hollande has slammed and vowed to reverse.
Arguing that France faces a crisis “unknown since World War II”, Mr. Sarkozy slammed Hollande's programme, which promises big increases in state spending and to create of thousands of teaching jobs.
"Do you really believe that in the current economic climate, we can tell the French people that we do not need to make savings?" he said.
"In my long political career I have seen many people promise a dream. Those dreams always turned into nightmares," he said, directly attacking Hollande's pledge to revive what the Socialist has dubbed "the French dream".
The Socialists scoffed at this charge, alleging that Sarkozy was trying to distract attention from his "fiasco" of a record.
After the trip to the Annecy cheese plant, 57-year-old Sarkozy will hold a large set-piece rally in the southern port city of Marseille on Sunday.