Nicolas Sarkozy took to the stump and glad-handed crowds Thursday as he tried to convince many skeptical French that he deserves a second term as their president.
The conservative Sarkozy, who many French blame for the country's economic woes, has trailed Socialist challenger Francois Hollande for months in the polls _ and just over two months remain until the two-round election on April 22 and May 6.
A day after he formally announced he would run again, Sarkozy gave a speech to supporters in the French Alps that made it clear he and his team have sensed the electoral headwinds.
"I could have stopped now. I could have _ I ask you to believe me _ liberated myself from this heavy burden," he said of his current five-year term. "I didn't feel like I have redeemed the confidence placed in me."
Hollande, not to be outdone, appeared on France's most-watched nightly news program, a day after Sarkozy went on it to finally announce his much-anticipated candidacy.
In Annecy, Sarkozy said the economic crisis that has ensnared France means he has unfinished business, and defended his new ideas for a national referendum on issues of unemployment insurance and immigration policy.
Sarkozy's stump speech came after milling with many supporters. But police escorted away one antagonist in the crowd who wore a T-shirt alluding to a caught-on-videotape insult the president made to a passer-by in 2008.
The president referred to unspecified "errors" he made, but sought to cast himself as the principled, frank-speaking reformer that France needs to rein in its bloated state deficit and curb government spending.
Sarkozy pilloried Socialist calls to lower France's retirement age as irresponsible policy, and accused Hollande of double-speak when it comes to the world of finance and regulatory reform.
Candidates played off the perceived weaknesses of the other. Sarkozy repeated that the need for a "strong" France _ an allusion to the perception among some that Hollande can be wishy-washy; Hollande said the president's tenure has been marked by "brutality," "meanness" and a "lack of respect" in a hint to the view among some that Sarkozy is not of presidential caliber.
After some British and American journalists interviewed Hollande this week, Britain's The Guardian quoted him as saying The City of London should not fear his push for more regulation of finance.
He reportedly said that during France's Socialist government of the 1980s, "we liberalized the economy and opened up the markets to finance and privatisations. There is no big fear."
While not referring to Hollande by name, Sarkozy pointed to a speech that the Socialist made last month in which he called "the world of finance" his "real adversary."
"Somebody is lying morning and night, and this lie doesn't honor the person telling it," Sarkozy thundered, to cheers. "I wouldn't have one truth in England and another in France."
On TV, Hollande sought to rise above such invective, defending his call for financial reform before decrying "senseless" attacks on his honesty that were based on "falsification, caricature and manipulation."
Hollande sought to poke holes in Sarkozy's argument that he was the best man to manage state finances, pointing to tax cuts for the rich that the president's conservative government pushed through early in his term.
Earlier, Sarkozy strolled through crowds under presidential security escort, munched chocolates in a shop and chatted with a young girl. Sarkozy said he enjoyed the chance for "direct contact with the people."
Cecile Brisson and Jamey Keaten contributed from Paris.