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Apr 15, 2012, 07.46 PM IST
FRANCE-ELECTION:France's Sarkozy, Hollande face off week before vote
By Catherine Bremer
PARIS (Reuters) - French presidential rivals Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande stage competing rallies in Paris on Sunday in a last-ditch bid for votes a week before elections that could propel the left into power after 17 years of conservative leaders.
A rash of opinion polls suggests conservative incumbent Sarkozy's re-election hopes may be crumbling as a recent spurt in support evaporates. Latest voter surveys show Hollande regaining momentum for the first round and winning a May 6 runoff by between 9 and 14 percentage points.
The open-air contest, a week before the first of two election rounds on April 22, comes as Sarkozy is struggling to overcome a tide of resentment over the sickly economy as well as a deep dislike among many voters of a presidential style some see as arrogant.
Sarkozy will address supporters in the Place de la Concorde, the city's biggest outdoor square where King Louis XVI was guillotined during the bloody aftermath of the 1789 Revolution.
Socialist Hollande simultaneously will address his supporters on a vast esplanade in front of the Chateau de Vincennes, a royal castle on the city's eastern edge which a mob of workers tried to raze in 1791.
Open-air rallies are unusual for mainstream candidates in France, and the two rivals seemed to hope to mimic the buzz created by radical left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who has drawn huge crowds to his outdoor meetings.
"I must convince people to go out and vote en masse, and carry me as high as possible in the first round to make a change of government inevitable," Hollande told the weekly Journal du Dimanche, as his party bet on 50,000 attendees.
Sarkozy's camp set up barriers around the Place de la Concorde to accommodate a hoped-for 80,000 people.
While Hollande's team seems visibly relaxed, Sarkozy's aides are fretting that what started as a high-impact campaign has lost its vim. After pushing a hard-right stance on immigration and trade protection to attract far-right votes, Sarkozy is now insisting he stands for voters of all stripes.
"The Place de la Concorde has been touched by all of France's history, it's not about the left or the right," Sarkozy's campaign spokeswoman Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet said.
"It's a place where all French people can gather," she told Reuters, speaking of the square, which is nonetheless known as the place where conservatives traditionally celebrate victories.
Hollande, whose aides have hit out at the conservatives for scheduling an outdoor rally to clash with theirs, indicated his choice of venue reflected his less combative campaign style.
"I am not asking for a head to be cut off, I am simply asking for another one to be chosen," Hollande said this week.
ECONOMY IS BATTLEGROUND
Sunday's rallies are the climax of a week during which Sarkozy warned that a Hollande victory could spur a crisis of confidence among financial markets, prompting Hollande to accuse him of encouraging speculation to serve his political ends.
The simultaneous speeches will be the closest the two rivals come to attacking each other in real time, with no face-to-face televised debates planned until after the April 22 vote.
While Sarkozy's manifesto is based on trimming spending and enacting structural measures to bolster industrial competitiveness, Hollande's tax-and-spend programme would take a year longer to reach a balanced budget.
Sarkozy says Hollande's economic proposals could see France suffering the economic problems that have hit Greece or Spain.
The Socialist's pledge to tax income above 1 million euros at 75 percent has rattled liberal observers, even though the measure would be largely symbolic and bring in limited revenue.
Hollande also has raised eyebrows by criticising a recent European Union accord on debt and deficit control, which has been credited with calming markets over the euro zone's debt crisis. He wants to renegotiate it to add pro-growth clauses.
Sarkozy's manifesto has come under fire from liberal editorialists, with the British-based Economist criticising a lack of concrete structural reform plans. Sarkozy has hit out at the Financial Times over an editorial praising Hollande's growth ideas, saying he disagreed with the paper's "Anglo-Saxon" views.
(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Michael Roddy)
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