Critics say Hollande, who saw the Socialist party fractured under his leadership, lacks international experience [EPA]

Francois Hollande, who is the clear favourite to win the French presidency by defeating incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy when voting takes place in April, is set for his biggest campaign event yet.

Hollande hopes to secure his front-runner status on Sunday with a high profile speech to a crowd of 10,000 at an exhibition hall in Le Bourget.

Opinion polls show the 57-year-old Socialist candidate, dubbed "Monsieur Normal" by the French public, defeating Sarkozy with an estimated 30 per cent of the vote in the April 22 first round and 57 per cent in a run-off two weeks later.

Centre-right Sarkozy is estimated to secure 23 per cent of the vote in the first round and 43 per cent in the May 6 run-off.

Reporting from the exhibition hall where cheering crowds waited for Hollande to take the stage, Al Jazeera's Jacky Rowland said it was rare for a candidate to take such "a safe lead" this early in the election season.

Sunday speech

In an interview with the Le Monde newspaper, Hollande, who was chosen as the Socialist canidate in last October's primary, said he planned to use Sunday's speech to show French voters ``where I come from, the meaning of my work over the past 20 years, and how I prepared to take on this responsibility''.

Hollande has built on his "Monsieur Normal" moniker to pitch his campaign as the alternative to Sarkozy's flamboyance. Asked "why you?" in an October interview, Hollande responded ``because I can beat Nicolas Sarkozy'' who has been shown to be increasingly unpopular in France.

Hollande's platform calls for reversing cuts in education introduced by Sarkozy's government, a new work contract to encourage companies to hire young people and focus on reducing France's high state budget deficit.

Though Hollande is seen as the front-runner in the two-round election, he has little visibility outside France. Critics worry he has limited international experience to head a nuclear-armed nation.

He has never run a government ministry. During his 1997-2008 tenure as the Socialist leader, the party was weakened and fractured after two devastating presidential campaign defeats.

Hollande has so far spoken little of international affairs, other than calling for an unspecified "pact'' with Germany, the EU's economic engine, to spur Europe's ailing economy.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies