NICE, France – Nicolas Sarkozy has made the final appearance of his campaign in the southern seaside town of Nice, seeking to emphasis unity within the party and his leadership on economic matters.
The president spoke without notes to about 10,000 supporters, paying little heed to predictions from opinion polls that suggest he is likely to loss May’s run-off vote for the presidency.
Predictions for the first round of voting on Sunday put him head-to-head with the other leading candidate, the Socialist Party's Francois Hollande.
The most recent polls, by Ifop-Fiducial for Paris-Match on Friday, gave Sarkozy and Hollande 27 per cent of the vote each.
Assuming the two candidates make it through to the run-off vote as predicted, the poll put Hollande on 54 per cent, a decisive victory against 46 per cent for Sarkozy.
Courting far right
Sarkozy's choice to hold his final rally in the Cote d'Azur, the region of France where the far right National Front traditionally achieves its highest scores, marked the culmination of a campaign that has focused on winning over the far right electorate.
Claude Chappe, an activist for Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), had come from the nearby city of Marseille to attend the rally.
"He's here to rally together his supporters, and maybe to win over voters from elsewhere," Chappe said.
Obligingly, the crowd reserved its largest booing of the night for the National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen.
Sarkozy warned those tempted by Le Pen that voting for the far-right candidate would result in "suffering, desperation and misery" for the French people.
Careful to position himself as being firm on immigration, yet not as extreme as Le Pen, the president also condemned the Socialists for not taking a harder position on the issue, saying that France did not have the resources to welcome so many new migrants.
The left was guilty of "false generosity [and] false humanism," he said.
As with the rest of his speech, he was careful to measure his message on immigration, the better to appeal to both the far right and more moderate voters at once.
"I don't want to talk about [immigration] because I'm obsessed. I know where I come from, I haven't forgotten my origins," said Sarkozy, whose father was a Hungarian migrant.
Likewise, he spoke directly to the "pieds-noirs", former colonists who lived in Algeria until its independence, drawing a loud cheer from a small group in the back of the room.
"Every country has the right to independence," he said, speaking to the pieds-noirs who had come to hear him.
"Yet we also need to acknowledge the lives and families destroyed in the process [when Algeria gained independence from France]."
The former colonists constitute a vocal electorate in the south of France that has rarely been directly addressed by any other party besides the National Front.
Keen to stress a united front amongst the UMP ranks, Sarkozy made special mention of two guests whose presence, he said, symbolised the coming together of the political family.
Bernadette Chirac, the wife of former president Jacques Chirac, gave an opening speech, her presence signifying a seal of approval from at least some of the party's Gaullist wing.
"Sarkozy needs us," the former First Lady, the only member of the Chirac clan backing Sarkozy's candidacy, told the crowd.
French media, from the left-wing Liberation to the right-wing Figaro, have widely reported that her husband will be voting for Hollande, causing considerable embarrassment for Sarkozy.
Yet on Friday, the president dismissed these reports as "lies", telling Bernadette Chirac that "with your presence here, all the family is together".
Rama Yade, a former member of Sarkozy’s government and a darling of the French public, also had a front row seat, indicating an apparent end to the bad blood between herself and Sarkozy's inner circle.
Sarkozy's former state secretary of human rights had publically cut ties with the president and the UMP in June 2011, having come under frequent attack from top members of the party for her outspokenness.
In his speech, the UMP candidate reminded his audience of how the left had condemned those who, like Yade, had crossed the political lines to join his first and second governments.
"I saw how those who joined us were treated, the names they were called," he said, making no mention of the fact that almost all the candidates from outside the party ranks had subsequently been cast out of his government.
At Nice, however, Yade was publically back in Sarkozy’s camp, her presence likely to appeal to centrist voters.
Introducing Sarkozy, Jean-Francois Cope, the secretary-general of the UMP, argued that a leftwing government would bring the kind of economic and political instability the country had experienced in the early days of Francois Mitterand’s presidency.
"There are some who don’t remember 1981, like Hollande," he said. "We don't want France to be defeated."
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Sarkozy elaborated on the same warning against what he called the "Melenchon-Joly-Hollande trio" in his speech, arguing that his economic policies following the financial crisis that began in 2008 had saved the country.
"Just look across the borders," he said, citing the examples of Greece, Spain, Italy, Ireland and Iceland. "If we hadn’t reformed, today we would be in the same situation as Spain."
With opposition to the European Union higher than ever, Sarkozy also defended his advocacy of the European project.
"I understand that most of you have always said no, while I have always said yes," he said. "The European project is a humanist project, we’ve worked on it for peace."
He said the biggest error European leaders had made was that they had not grounded the region’s "Christian roots" and had disbanded national border control within the union.