|Sarkozy regularly accused of fishing for support from voters who lean towards the National Front [Reuters]
Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, threatened in a key election rally to pull France out of Europe's 25-nation visa free zone unless the EU does more to keep out clandestine immigrants.
Sarkozy, who this week said France had too many foreigners, made the threat at a mass meeting which he hopes will turn the tide against front-running Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party's presidential candidate, with just 42 days to go before election day.
The so-called Schengen passport-free zone must urgently be overhauled to fight the flow of illegal immigration, the right-wing leader said, returning to a constant theme in his bid for five more years at the Elysee palace.
To chants of "Nicolas, president!" from the tens of thousands in the flag-waving audience, Sarkozy said unchecked immigration would put extra strain on social safety nets for Europe's poorest.
"In the coming 12 months, [if] there is no serious progress towards this [reforming Schengen], France would then suspend its participation in the Schengen accords until negotiations conclude," he declared.
'Suspending' border crossings
The Schengen area is home to 400 million Europeans who can cross borders without a passport.
Once inside the area, illegal immigrants can theoretically move freely between the participating states. Sarkozy accuses some EU states of having lax border controls that let in clandestine migrants that may later turn up in France.
Sarkozy's UMP party chartered TGV high-speed trains and fleets of buses to ferry supporters from across France for the rally in a cavernous exhibition hall in Villepinte, near Paris Charles de Gaulle airport.
Sarkozy told them he also wanted the EU to introduce a "Buy European Act" based on a US measure that obliges the state to use domestically-produced products in public contracts.
He warned that if the European Union did not do this within a year he would, if re-elected in the two-round vote in April and May, implement a unilateral "Buy French" law.
"I want a Europe that protects its citizens. I no longer want this savage competition," he told the crowd, which the UMP estimated at 70,000. He said he rejected the idea of "a Europe that opens up its markets when others do not".
"I have lost none of my will to act, my will to make things change, my belief in the genius of France," he insisted.
But Sarkozy pulled few surprises out of the hat, sticking instead to the familiar themes of himself as the steady captain steering through an economic storm, immigration and elite groups that act against the public interest.
He is regularly accused of fishing for support from voters who lean towards the National Front, the anti-immigrant, anti-EU party led by Marine Le Pen, who polls put in third place in the presidential race.
He got the loudest cheer of the rally when he reminded his supporters he had banned Islamic veils in France and was opposed to having special Islamic halal meals in school canteens.
Sarkozy a week ago picked up on a debate about halal meat - launched by Le Pen - and declared that its spread was a major problem for the French.
The Villepinte rally came just days after the 56-year-old Sarkozy said he would quit politics for good if not re-elected.
He is accused of being sidetracked by minor issues at a time when France is struggling to generate growth and to escape the eurozone financial crisis.
Hollande, who has never held a ministerial post and whose ex-partner Segolene Royal lost to Sarkozy in 2007, this week pressed home his attacks on his rival's record in five years at the Elysee palace.
He mocked Sarkozy's plan - announced Tuesday - to slap a new tax on the profits of listed companies which he said would bring in up to three billion euros ($3.9bn) a year to help cut the public deficit.
An OpinionWay-Fiducial opinion poll on Thursday forecast that Hollande would take 29 per cent of the vote in the first round, with Sarkozy at 26 per cent and Le Pen third at 17 per cent.
Hollande, who has enjoyed a clear lead for five months, would romp home in the second round with 56 per cent, well ahead of Sarkozy at 44 per cent, the poll said.
Sarkozy fans at Sunday's rally - his biggest campaign meeting so far - dismisssed the polls and said they were sure he would be able to stay in the Elysee.
"Sarkozy is the only one who can save France from going the way of Greece or Italy," said Thierry Salic, a 46 transport worker, who came from the southern city of Salon-en-Provence in one of the specially hired TGVs.