By Catherine Bremer
PARIS (Reuters) - Socialist presidential challenger Francois Hollande has raised the bar with a weighty economic plan and nimble performance in a televised debate this week, and President Nicolas Sarkozy is preparing to fight back with a TV interview on Sunday.
With Sarkozy aiming to dazzle voters with crisis measures to stem rampant unemployment, Hollande laid out plans on Thursday to squeeze tax breaks on the wealthy and big companies to fund investment in small businesses, education and new jobs.
Keeping new tax revenues carefully higher than spending, the program re-established Hollande as a fiscally responsible centre-leftist, after his recent attack on the financial sector, even if some economists found it lacking in structural reform ideas.
It also catapulted him ahead of Sarkozy -- who, to the annoyance of some in his conservative UMP party, may not announce his re-election bid until early March -- in terms of laying out all the detail of his campaign pledges.
Hollande, who tops opinion polls but had been criticized for a lack of campaign direction, also ably fended off barbs in a primetime TV duel with Alain Juppe, Sarkozy's foreign minister and one of the most experienced politicians on his team.
"This is a key moment for (Sarkozy) because it comes after a week that has been a very good one for Hollande," said Brice Teinturier, deputy director at pollster Ipsos.
"Hollande has clearly retaken the offensive and above all he has disproved two of the UMP's criticisms of him: a lack of presidential character and weight, and having flabby proposals, because he's come up with 60 that are pretty precise."
Often seen as a weaker public speaker than the flamboyant and hot-blooded Sarkozy, the softer-spoken Hollande took the upper hand in a long and highly technical debate against Juppe, a former prime minister under President Jacques Chirac.
Hollande proved unflappable and eloquent -- and even looked like he was rather enjoying himself -- as Juppe sniped at his ideas and accused him of being arrogant and vague.
The long-time Socialist party boss managed to get in the last word on most exchanges.
Sarkozy is planning a last-minute campaign where he will admit that the global economic crisis derailed some of his initial promises and will try to show that he is the safest pair of hands to pull France out of the latest bout of turmoil.
Jolted by a cut to France's AAA credit rating by Standard and Poor's this month, Sarkozy has switched his focus to growth and will use Sunday's panel interview to flesh out a set of job-saving measures agreed in hurried talks with unions on January 18.
Party officials say his campaign will centre on the need to restore competitiveness, which has slid far below Germany's over the past few years as France raised wages and shortened the work week while Germany kept wages low and job contracts flexible.
Aides say Sunday's 1900 GMT interview will reflect that.
"He will promise things that are achievable," one of Sarkozy's long-term advisers told Reuters. "His obsession now is economic competitiveness. When you are trying for re-election you can't promise 50 measures: you have to say 'I am a better bet than the other guy' and be much more focused."
The economy and the euro zone crisis are the top concerns for voters ahead of the two-round April 22 and May 6 ballot.
Left-wingers have accused Sarkozy of overblowing the scale of the crisis to serve his political needs, while Sarkozy is playing up his experience in office and hoping the fact Hollande has never been a government minister will count against him.
Credibility on the economy will be key to winning over centrist voters, many of whom would have backed former finance minister and IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn for president, until his career was wrecked by a sex assault scandal in New York last May, and are still weighing Hollande's credentials.
A surge in support for centrist Francois Bayrou, who is scoring 14-15 percent in polls behind Hollande, Sarkozy and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, shows how key centre-ground votes will be in a runoff likely to pit Hollande against Sarkozy.
Bayrou has been critical of Hollande's ideas, and may find it hard to back him in a runoff after Hollande declared war on the world of finance in a speech last weekend. Hollande said on Thursday he did not see a job for Bayrou in his government.
(Additional reporting by Yann Le Guernigou; Editing by Mark Heinrich)