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Latest update : 2012-04-16

Presidential rivals François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy staged competing rallies in Paris on Sunday afternoon, in a last ditch effort to woo voters ahead of next week's election. Tens of thousands of supporters showed up for each event.

AFP - Thousands of supporters of France's right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist challenger Francois Hollande gathered in Paris on Sunday for duelling rallies one week before polling day.

Sarkozy summoned what he calls his "silent majority" to the Place de la Concorde in the heart of the city, while an increasingly confident Hollande staged a concert and campaign meeting at the Chateau de Vincennes in the east.

"To imagine an election already won would be a political, even a moral mistake. Nevertheless, I admit, I am ready to govern France," Hollande declared in a interview with the weekly Le Journal du Dimanche.

His buoyant mood in the final straight was supported by the latest opinion polls, which all still predict a close first round on April 22 followed by a comfortable victory for Hollande in a May 6 run-off against Sarkozy.

Sarkozy and Hollande both hoped to gather tens of thousands of their own supporters -- and the attention of television cameras -- to launch the final week of campaigning before the first round on a triumphant note.

Speeches got underway first at Sarkozy's event, with the leaders of his UMP party taking to the stage to denounce the left, while at Vincennes the French West Indian band Kassav took to the stage to entertain Hollande's crowd.

UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope claimed 100,000 had come to cheer Sarkozy, under a sea of tricolour flags, but observers thought this an exagerrated estimate. The rival crowds looked similar in scale in television images.

"Today, Paris is yours! Your number is a stinging riposte to those who said you were resigned and voiceless," Prime Minister Francois Fillon declared.

Hollande's adviser Manuel Valls claimed on Twitter that the Socialists had also gathered 100,000, again appearing to err on the high side. Police said in advance that they would not be giving an official estimate of the crowd.

Observers were keen to see who could draw the biggest or most fervent crowds, but nothing in the race has yet shifted the underlying polling data: Sarkozy appears to be on course for a clear defeat after one term.

A cautious campaigner, Hollande has not generated much passion in his own camp, but insisted: "I do not want to be president by default. The country is not waiting for a president to leave, but for a new one to arrive."

He has invited popular rock bands to entertain the crowds at his festival-like rally in a leafy area of eastern Paris near the working-class districts that he will have to mobilise to ensure a majority.

Sarkozy's camp mocked the line-up, joking that musicians had been invited because the Socialists feared that no one would turn up to hear Hollande's stump speech, and promised a more traditional rally of their own.

"With us, there will be no concert, but there will be France," joked Sarkozy spokeswoman Nathalie Kosciucko-Morizet. "If you like Kassav, go to Vincennes, and if you have the patience there'll be some Hollande afterwards."

Hollande's son, 27-year-old lawyer and campaign adviser Thomas Hollande, said: "It's an important moment, but it should also be festive.

"There's obviously a risk of a demobilisation, since some are resigned to the result. Francois Hollande has to convince people that change is possible and that he represents it."

Place de la Concorde, just across the River Seine from the National Assembly and lying between the Champs Elysees and the Louvre, was previously the scene of Sarkozy's triumphant victory rally in 2007.

Police have said they will not communicate their estimates for turnout, but Sarkozy was banking on large numbers to support his theory that the polls are failing to take into account a "silent majority" on the right.

"Tomorrow, I'm going to bring together many, many, many of the French. I can feel mobilisation. I can feel the popular will," he said Saturday.

"I want tomorrow to address the silent France. Those who don't smash up bus shelters. Those who just want to be allowed to work. To those who love their families, the land. Those who love their country," he said.

The final week of campaigning will also be the last chance for the trailing candidates to make their mark before they are eliminated.

Communist-backed left-winger Jean-Luc Melenchon has made the surprise breakthrough of the campaign, and his Left Front party is battling Marine Le Pen's anti-immigrant, anti-EU, far-right National Front for third place.

Recent polls have both at between 13 percent and 17 percent -- some giving Melenchon a slight advantage, some Le Pen -- despite the latter's bold claim that she will win double the hard left's score.

Date created : 2012-04-15


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