Sarkozy urges French voters to save civilisation – and his career

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Standing on the spot where Louis XVI was guillotined 200 years ago, President Nicolas Sarkozy yesterday appealed to "the people of France" to save "French civilisation". And his own head.

A week before the first round of presidential elections that Mr Sarkozy is expected to lose, he staged a bold display of defiance by attracting a crowd of around 100,000 supporters to the Place de la Concorde in the heart of Paris.

On the edge of the capital, at Château de Vincennes, front-runner François Hollande assembled a "besieging" army of Socialist supporters of roughly the same strength. Both men appealed to France's revolutionary traditions. Both said the election was a pivotal moment in French, European and world history.

President Sarkozy told the crowd: "What is at stake is not just the future of France but the survival of a model of civilisation – ours."

A confident Mr Hollande said: "This is not just a French election... What you decide will determine far into the future the history of Europe."

Mr Sarkozy said he had chosen to stage his rally in the Place de la Concorde as it had been at the "heart of all our national tragedies and all our victories for two centuries." He omitted to add that he was speaking on the spot, in front of the gates of the Tuileries gardens, where the guillotine ended the reign of a previous French head of state back in January 1793.

Mr Sarkozy played down his recent hard-right rhetoric on immigration and the Islamist threat to French national identity. Instead, he appealed to the "people" to rise up against the opinion polls and the "elites" and rescue France from a "soft" Left which "detested success" and wealth-creation.

President Sarkozy promised to create a "New Model France", which would encourage French creativity and enterprise, but which would also demand the setting up of new European barriers to "unfair" competition from abroad.

There was one big surprise, which amounted to a political, handbrake turn. Towards the end of his 32-minute speech, Mr Sarkozy said that, if re-elected, he would "re-open the fight" to allow the European Central Bank to invest directly to "promote growth" in Europe.

This reflationary idea – steadfastly rejected by German Chancellor Angela Merkel – forms part of the programme of both Mr Hollande and the harder-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The Sarkozy camp has, until now, mocked such a programme as being unrealistic and unattainable.

A devastating opinion poll published yesterday, put Mr Sarkozy's "satisfaction" rating at 36 per cent. No president in the Fifth Republic (since 1958) has had such a low level of personal popularity a week before the first round of a presidential election. The only one to come close, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing with 40 per cent in 1991, lost the presidential election to his Socialist challenger, François Mitterrand.

The opinion poll's findings were reflected in the differing moods of the warring armies which assembled in Paris yesterday. The Socialist rally, at Château de Vincennes, was a cross between a mass picnic and a rock-concert.

Mr Hollande warned that nothing should be taken for granted and said a high turn-out next Sunday was crucial. Nonetheless, a relatively young crowd, almost giddy with optimism, chanted: "On va gagner" (we will win) and: "François president".

In the Place de la Concorde, the mood was defiant but also indignant at the thought that France could elect only its second Socialist president in half a century. Philippe, 55, said it was important to show that the centre-right could still put as many troops on the streets as what he called the "socio-decadents".

He said that people should not believe the opinion polls. "France is a rebellious country... no one can predict, a country that is not easily pushed around."

Louis XVI would no doubt have agreed with him as he faced the guillotine.