PARIS — The French presidential election finally began to heat up on Thursday, less than three weeks before the first round of voting, with President Nicolas Sarkozy accusing his Socialist rival, Francois Hollande, of “promising a festival of new spending that no one knows how to pay for” and risking turning France into Greece or Spain.
Hollande acts “as if the world did not exist, Europe did not exist, the crisis did not exist,” Sarkozy said. “The situation today that our Spanish friends are going through, that our Greek friends have gone through, reminds us of reality. Look at the situation in Spain, after seven years of Socialist rule.”
Sarkozy spoke after Hollande, who appears to have an edge in polls, laid out plans for a first year in office. Hollande also raised questions about the political use of police raids on suspected Islamist radicals, and, in a large rally in Rennes, accused Sarkozy of making many promises but failing to deliver.
In general, French polls show Sarkozy and Hollande roughly even within margins of error for the first round of 10 candidates on April 22, with Hollande maintaining a lead of six to 10 percentage points over Sarkozy in a potential runoff on May 6.
Sarkozy called a rare news conference at his campaign headquarters, ostensibly to lay out his values and his own program for France, in which he lambasted his main opponent and jousted edgily with a press corps he thinks is aligned against him. He mocked Hollande as promising billions of euros in new spending but specifying no cuts, except for ministerial salaries.
Sarkozy’s allies took up the Hollande-bashing theme. Sarkozy’s spokeswoman, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, said that Hollande wanted to give France “a one-way ticket to Greece” and called his plans “stillborn.” Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, speaking to journalists on Thursday in his gilded office, said that Hollande’s plans were “an explosive cocktail” and “could drive France over a precipice.”
Hollande, in an effort to recapture momentum in the election, laid out his initial plans as president — to freeze fuel prices for three months, slash ministerial salaries by 30 percent, raise taxes on the very rich, increase welfare payments and guarantee interest rates above inflation on tax-free savings accounts. He promises to hire more teachers and police and to concentrate on helping young people to train for and find jobs.