TOULOUSE, France — French presidential favourite Francois Hollande made his final rallying call Thursday in the city of Toulouse where a few weeks ago an Islamist killer brought a brief halt to a bitter election campaign.
The Socialist candidate confidently declared that his triumph on Sunday over right-wing incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy “will be felt across Europe as a moment of hope” for a continent facing its worst economic crisis in decades.
The 25,000-strong crowd in the central square of the sun-drenched southwestern city cheered as Hollande, for whom all polls predict a win, denounced Sarkozy and said it was time for the left to rule again in France.
Socialist party leaders from Spain, Portugal and Senegal joined the French left-wing leadership and a host of French showbiz, sporting and business celebrities for what seemed as much a victory speech as a campaign rally.
Genevieve Ferran, a childcare worker from Toulouse, had no doubt that Hollande would soon be moving into the Elysee Palace and agreed with the candidate’s accusation that Sarkozy had been a divisive figure.
“I came to listen to a president who is equal to our hopes,” she said in the Place du Capitole, whose pink-coloured brick buildings are typical of the city, as Sarkozy held his own final rally in the Mediterranean port of Toulon.
Former Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin, who was knocked out of the second round presidential vote in 2002 by the then far-right National Front (FN) leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, led Hollande onto the stage to wild applause.
“I want to wipe away the cruel memory of April 21, 2002,” said Hollande, who in this year’s first round beat off the new FN leader, Le Pen’s daughter Marine, but saw her clinch the party’s best ever score.
“He has presidential stature,” said Jean-Claude, a 62-year-old teacher, who said Hollande’s performance on Wednesday in the campaign’s only head-to-head television debate with Sarkozy had shown the incumbent to be “hollow”.
Hollande, dressed in a dark suit as he stood on a stage in front of the town hall, mocked Sarkozy’s performance the night before, saying the president had threatened to “eat him up in one mouthful but had gone home hungry”.
“There are lots of people who are still undecided. I hope the debate will have convinced them,” he said of the TV duel that saw a clearly frustrated Sarkozy call his rival a “liar” and “arrogant” several times.
Hollande’s speech looked back over the long campaign that led him to all corners of France and to the country’s overseas territories in the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean.
He used it to remind his followers of the policies he plans to implement over the next five years if he wins. These include a tax rate of 75 percent on earnings over a million euros, 60,000 new teaching jobs and renegotiating the European fiscal pact to include a growth strategy.
But he also spent much energy accusing Sarkozy of turning the French against each other, of trying to instill fear of economic chaos, fear of foreigners, and fear of losing their cherished way of life.
He said Sarkozy had equated immigrants with Muslims and implied that Muslims wanted to live in ghettoes cut off from mainstream French society.
Hollande said Toulouse was a tolerant place that had been “profoundly marked by the terrible murders in a Jewish school” carried out in March by a self-proclaimed Al-Qaeda member from the city.
The election campaign came to a halt for a few days as the country came to terms with the attacks by Mohamed Merah, who was shot dead in a police siege following a killing spree in which he murdered seven people.
Hollande said he would be a president who united the French instead of driving them apart.
“There are not two Frances that are in conflict. There is only one and the head of state has to bring together all of France,” he told his supporters in the left-wing bastion which is a traditional final port of call for Socialist presidential wannabes.
“Vive la republique. Vive la France,” he concluded, as the Marseillaise national anthem began to play.