By Emmanuel Jarry
MARSEILLE, France, Feb 19 (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy told an election rally on Sunday that his policies had saved France from economic ruin and that he alone had the courage to stick to reforms that would see the nation emerge stronger from today's turmoil.
Addressing 7,000 supporters in the port city of Marseille in the second rally of his campaign, Sarkozy accused Socialist Francois Hollande of being dishonest about the risks still facing France and being wishy-washy about his policy plans.
The centre-right Sarkozy is grappling with disapproval ratings of 67-68 percent and opinion polls placing him 12 points behind Hollande for a May 6 runoff where the pair are likely to face off following an April 22 first round.
"We avoided catastrophe," Sarkozy said, adding that anyone who doubted his management of the crisis should look at the dire economic situation in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece.
"France has not been swept away by the crisis of confidence that has ravaged so many countries. We have not seen the despair and violence that have set ablaze countries near our borders," he said, to cheers.
"If we don't understand the crisis and the risks it creates for us, not only can we not judge the past but we can't imagine, or prepare for, the future. Denying the crisis is not only dishonest, it's dangerous."
Sarkozy is betting that his experience steering France and the euro zone through crisis will be his most effective weapon against Hollande, a textbook Socialist who is popular on the left but lacks experience in a ministerial post.
While Sarkozy is vowing structural reforms to aid flagging competitiveness and bolster growth and employment, Hollande's programme is based around raising taxes on the wealthy to fund investment in education, research and state-aided jobs.
Opponents of Hollande have criticised a lack of clarity over his plans to row back on Sarkozy's raising of the retirement age to 62 from 60 and for sounding a pro-market line to Anglo-Saxon audiences while declaring war on finance in a speech in France.
The race, which began in earnest last week when Sarkozy declared his candidacy for reelection, has turned into a clear two-horse race as support for far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist Francois Bayrou has waned.
Sarkozy's 2007 election win was helped by support from the far-right, and he sought to keep National Front voters on his side on Sunday by proposing to introduce some proportionality to legislative elections, a move that would benefit small parties like Le Pen's.
He also maintained a hard-right line on immigration, saying it must be controlled to protect the unemployed, and reiterating his opposition to euthanasia and gay marriage.
At her own rally in the northern industrial city of Lille, Le Pen urged right-wingers to vote en masse against Sarkozy on April 22 to knock him out of the May 6 runoff.
"People of France, give Nicolas Sarkozy a red card. Let's get him off the pitch," she said as some 2,000 supporters cheered and brandished symbolic red cards.
She slammed an effort by Sarkozy on Sunday to brand himself as "a candidate of the people" rather than "of the elite", as he strives to reconnect with an electorate where many say they will be voting against him rather than for a rival candidate.
A survey by TNS Sofres published on Sunday showed 54 percent of respondents were "certain" they would not vote for Sarkozy in a runoff.
Sarkozy's bid to reach out to the man in the street, underpinned by a pledge this week to hold regular referendums on policy, seemed to respond to criticism early in his term over his chumminess with the rich, who benefitted from his tax cuts, and his penchant for luxury yachts and private jets.
"The candidate of the powerful has become, with a stroke of media magic, the candidate of the people," Le Pen said. "It's the ultimate insult from a failed presidency."
Sarkozy, well aware that his brash personality grates with many, has made a huge effort of late to appear more austere and erudite, and has kept his private life out of sight.
Former supermodel first lady Carla Bruni, whose romance with Sarkozy after he came to power shocked many, kept a low profile on Sunday, wearing her hair down and a plain business suit. She embraced Sarkozy demurely and called his speech "very moving". (Additional reporting by John Irish in Lille; Writing by Catherine Bremer in Paris Editing by Maria Golovnina)
France Elections: Sarkozy Focuses On Crisis Leadership As President