French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist rival François Hollande have held duelling rallies in Paris one week before polling day, with the incumbent running out of time in his bid to pull off the greatest turnaround in modern French politics.
Xavier’s face broke into a grin as the train crawled into Concorde underground station packed with scores of people bearing the blue, white and red flag of France.
“Watch out, two Frances are about to cross paths!” warned the young Parisian wrapped in a red scarf as he prepared to board the train.
While he and his friends were on their way to Vincennes Castle in eastern Paris, where Socialist presidential candidate François Hollande was holding a campaign rally, the flag-bearing crowd had reached their destination: President Nicolas Sarkozy’s own rally on Place de la Concorde.
With just one week to go before the first round of voting on April 22, the two main contenders for the French presidency were both hoping to trump the other by staging the biggest show in town.
And to add to the logistical nightmare for police, they picked the same day as the Paris marathon.
For the 40,000 runners taking part in the gruelling 42.2-kilometre race, Place de la Concorde barely marked the beginning of their ordeal.
But for the French president, Sunday's gathering on the iconic square signalled the final stretch of an increasingly uphill struggle.
According to the latest opinion polls, Sarkozy is likely to match his Socialist rival in the first round of voting but would lose by as much as 10 percentage points should the two go face to face in a run-off on May 6.
Until earlier this week, Sarkozy’s camp had hailed his slow but steady rise in surveys. But that trend has stalled and the president's supporters have reverted to dismissing opinion polls as inaccurate.
“The polling institutes have got it wrong and the media keep spreading their lies,” said 74-year-old Monique from the Mediterranean port of Toulon, who had reached Paris on one of a dozen special trains rented for the occasion by Sarkozy’s UMP party.
But some on Place de la Concorde were more sceptical of the president’s chances, acknowledging that Sarkozy’s campaign had so far failed to produce a clear message that could help turn the tide.
“We are itching to tell the French we have saved them from economic crisis – which we have. And yet we also need to warn that the country is still on the edge of the abyss and that the Socialists will simply push it over the brink,” said one party member who declined to be named.
Liberty or equality
"You want the left, you will get Greece," Sarkozy had warned French voters in recent days. But on Sunday, he urged the crowd not to live in “fear of defeat”.
"You are the true France!" he told his tricolour-bearing supporters, many of them elderly, in a speech crammed with references to the great figures and battles of French history.
By choosing the Place de la Concorde, a gateway to the French capital’s affluent west, Sarkozy hoped to evoke memories of mass rallies there in favour of conservative icons Charles de Gaulle and Jacques Chirac, as well as his own victory parade in the happier days of May 2007.
“Since then the Sarkozy brand has lost some of its shine, but he is still the best man to pull us out of crisis,” said retired shopkeeper Pierre Boeuf, who had left the foothills of the Pyrenees at 5am to attend the rally in Paris.
Others felt the incumbent president was simply closer to their values. Pascale Le Roy, a former banker, said she agreed with Sarkozy that the first of the three words in the French Republic’s motto – liberty, equality, fraternity – was the most important, “whereas most Socialists would opt for the second”.
Moments earlier, the French president had warned to rapturous applause that he would "never accept an egalitarian, levelled-out France that turns its back on talent because it fears it".
Nearby, an enthusiastic group of business students said they would vote for the incumbent because he would “put lazy Frenchmen back to work”.
For them, Sarkozy’s problem was merely one of image. “The French simply don’t like him. It’s personal. They are still making him pay for the early mistakes that earned him the ‘bling-bling’ tag.”
Most Socialists, perhaps including Hollande himself, would agree with that assessment.
Back in February, while discussing his encounters on the campaign trail in an interview with the British press, Hollande admitted he had met far more people who wanted Sarkozy out than people who wanted the Socialist candidate in.
Before boarding his train for Vincennes on Sunday, Xavier said the two objectives were intertwined. “We definitely want to see an end to Sarkozy’s rule, but we also believe in the current Socialist project and its emphasis on fiscal fairness,” he said.
Hollande has pledged to balance France's budget by 2017, one year after Sarkozy, in part by raising taxes on the country's largest companies and the highest earners.
Among his supporters in Vincennes, a visibly more diverse crowd gathered in the staunchly left-wing east of Paris, some said they longed for an end to what they regarded as Sarkozy's growing anti-immigration stance.
In the end, Sunday’s duel appeared to end in a draw with both camps proclaiming – somewhat optimistically – that they had pooled more than a hundred thousand supporters.
But the festive nature of Hollande’s rally underscored the growing confidence in the Socialist camp that they have the best chance in decades of improving their dismal record in presidential elections.
Had they been in need of further comfort, they might have pointed out that Place de la Concorde is also where one ill-fated French ruler and his reviled wife were brought to the guillotine all those years ago.