By JEFFREY SCHAEFFER, Associated Press
MARSEILLE, France (AP) — President Nicolas Sarkozy defended his unpopular policies as insulating France from the worst consequences of Europe's debt crisis, declaring in a nationalistic speech to thousands of supporters Sunday that "the truth doesn't scare me."
In the first major speech of his re-election campaign, Sarkozy lashed his opponent and election front-runner, Socialist candidate Francois Hollande, painting him as a liar who would say anything to get elected.
Just two months ahead of the two-round spring elections, Sarkozy finally threw his hat into the ring on Wednesday, as expected. But with unemployment nearing 10 percent and the economy barely growing, Sarkozy has trailed Hollande in the polls for months, and many observers have said the gap may be insurmountable.
On Sunday in the southern French city of Marseille, Sarkozy noted that the French were suffering, that many were out of work and struggling to stay in their homes. He acknowledged that he'd raised the retirement age, was slashing the number of state employees and that all were facing a future with fewer benefits.
"These decisions, I take responsibly for them because they were difficult, but if I hadn't made these decisions, where would we be today? That's the question!" he shouted to an eruption of cheers and applause.
The answer, for Sarkozy, was clear: He pointed to astronomically high unemployment in Spain, painful budget cuts in Italy and Greece and even to Americans forced from their homes because they were unable to pay their mortgages as proof that the crisis was global, but that France had escaped the worst of its consequences.
"France wasn't carried off by a crisis of confidence," he said, referring to countries, like Italy, that have seen their borrowing costs skyrocket as investors demand higher interest rates to lend to them. "There hasn't been the despair or violence that has touched so many other countries."
While Sarkozy's opponents have used the poor state of the economy to hammer him, the president said Sunday he was prepared to stand by his record and even vowed that he was looking forward to the campaign — which analysts have said will be an uphill battle.
"The truth doesn't scare me," he declared.
Hollande, in an interview later with BFM television, contested that France was better off than its neighbors, noting that Germany is faring well and that doing better than Greece was hardly cause for celebration.
Sarkozy's speech was remarkably nationalistic, beginning with meandering praise for all that Sarkozy loves about France and mounting to a defense of his record in which each point was introduced by "to love France is to."
His opponents' ideas, by contrast, were labeled as springing from those who had forgotten French values. Though Sarkozy didn't refer to him by name, he sought to paint Hollande as a waffler.
"Where is the truth ... when one pretends to be (Margaret) Thatcher in London and (Francois) Mitterrand in Paris?" Sarkozy asked, referring to the union-busting, conservative British prime minister and the iconic Socialist French president.
That dig appeared aimed at an interview Hollande gave recently to British and American journalists in which he was quoted as saying that London's financial center should not fear him.
Sarkozy has already balked at that reassurance, noting that Hollande has also called the world of finance his "real adversary."
In the television interview, Hollande said he stood by his comments but tweaked them, saying that finance must be made to serve the real economy.
"The adversary is when finance lives off the economy" rather than nourishing it, he said.
With his trademark equanimity, Hollande brushed off questions about Sarkozy's criticism, saying that "insults are a sign of weakness."
Associated Press writers Sarah DiLorenzo and Syvlie Corbet contributed to this report from Paris.