In a May Day address to an estimated 200,000 people in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower on Tuesday, presidential incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy called on French unions to "serve France", and accused them of failing workers.
AFP - Nicolas Sarkozy staged a huge election rally on Tuesday to rival France's traditional May Day show of force by the left, as Marine Le Pen scornfully rejected his bid to woo her far-right supporters.
Five days before Sarkozy was to face Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande in the second-round run-off of the French presidential election, he addressed a cheering crowd in Paris in front of the Eiffel Tower at Trocadero.
His campaign claimed 200,000 had turned out in bright spring sunshine to hear him attempt to don the nationalist mantle of General Charles de Gaulle and, while this figure was impossible to verify, the crowd was packed tight.
Sarkozy to unions: 'Do not betray your mission'
At the same moment, the French left and trade union movements, which are backing Hollande, were marching through Left Bank Paris towards another huge rally at the revolutionary venue of the Place de la Bastille.
"I say this to the unions. Put down the red flag and serve France!" the right-wing incumbent declared, as supporters waved France's tricolour banner.
Having spent the week since the first-round vote attempting to recruit far-right sympathisers from Le Pen's anti-immigrant, anti-EU camp, Sarkozy rounded on the left, accusing the unions of failing ordinary workers.
He tried to silence critics of his bid to hijack what is traditionally a labour festival by recalling that De Gaulle had often addressed France on May Day, and urged France to turn its back on Socialism.
"We have decided to gather under the Tricolour. I will never accept being lectured to by those who brandish the red flag, symbol of so many tyrannies," he said, while four kilometres (just over two miles) away the unions marched.
Le Pen denounces Sarkozy and Hollande
Promising a "new French model" based on hard work and entrepreneurship, he vowed to abolish collective bargaining and build an economy where "success will no longer be regarded with suspicion but as an example".
The crowd chanted "We're going to win! We're going to win!", but if Sarkozy does pull it off it will be despite stagnant growth, high unemployment and his having trailed Hollande in opinion polls for more than six months.
The latest polls forecast that Hollande will win by around 54 percent to Sarkozy's 46, and his campaign is coasting towards Wednesday's televised debate and Sunday's election showdown with quiet confidence.
Campaigning outside Paris, Hollande said he would seek to be a successor to France's last Socialist president Francois Mitterrand and accused Sarkozy of trying to divide France with his attacks on trade unions.
"When there are four million unemployed, when joblessness has increased by more than a million, who defends the value of work and who is ruining it?" he asked, hailing unions and promising growth and a higher minimum wage.
Sarkozy's best hope of turning around the polls would be to recruit most of Le Pen's voters from the first round, when she won a record 18 percent on a ticket of protectionism, leaving the European Union and closing the borders.
But Le Pen, hopeful that a Sarkozy loss would shatter the right and help the National Front make gains in June's legislative elections, scorned his overture in the third big rally of the day in Paris.
"Who between Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy will impose the austerity plan in the most servile way? Who will submit the best to the instructions of the IMF, the ECB or the European Commission?" she asked ironically.
"On May 6 it's not a president who is to be elected, but a simple employee of the European Central Bank, a Brussels sub-controller of finance, charged with applying the Commission's decisions without question," she said.
"And, forgive me, with regular reports to Angela Merkel's Germany," she added, as the crowd booed.
Le Pen reminded her supporters that they are free to vote as they choose on Sunday, but said that she would cast a blank ballot so as not to endorse either candidate and strongly suggested that they should do the same.
THE SARKOZY RALLY IN PICTURES
Supporters of Nicolas Sarkozy gathered at the Place du Trocadéro in west Paris on Labour Day to hear the incumbent president’s notions of work. Photo: Mehdi Chebil.
Tens of thousands of people waved their French flags when Sarkozy told the crowds that he preferred the colours of the Tricolore from the red flags traditionally carried by unionists on Labour Day. Photo: Mehdi Chebil.
Not everybody managed to crowd into the Trocadéro square where Sarkozy was speaking. Giant screens were placed nearby for those who couldn’t get any closer. Photo: Mehdi Chebil.
Many pensioners came to celebrate what Sarkozy described a “real” workers’ party. A former textiles worker (centre) who gave his name as Guillaume told FRANCE 24 that he felt there was too much state assistance in France. Photo: Mehdi Chebil.
Prime Minister François Fillon, who had been rumoured to have distanced himself from Sarkozy’s campaign after a squabble over the party moving further towards the far right, also spoke at the rally. Photo: Mehdi Chebil.
The crowds waved their flags and cheered when Sarkozy emerged on the stage. The flags were handed out to supporters before the speech. Photo: Mehdi Chebil.
The crowds listened attentively until Sarkozy paused following the mention of social assistance or challenger François Hollande, when they willingly booed. Photo: Mehdi Chebil.
Sarkozy fans of all ages filled the square. Many supporters also brought their children to the rally. Photo: Mehdi Chebil.
This 32-year-old logistics supervisor who gave his name as Belgacem is concerned that a Socialist win on Sunday will only worsen France’s financial woes. Photo: Mehdi Chebil.
Many of those living in apartments overlooking the square came out onto their balconies to lend their support to Sarkozy. The district where the Trocadéro is located (the 16th arrondissement) is one of the wealthiest in Paris. Photo: Mehdi Chebil.