France's presidential race has entered its last week with conservative Nicolas Sarkozy leading Socialist Segolene Royal in the polls, and both candidates turning their sights to a crucial face-to-face TV debate on Wednesday.
Sarkozy staged an emotionally-charged last big Paris rally Sunday, casting himself as a unifier.
"I want to be the candidate of the people of France and not the media, the apparatus, partisan interests or sectarianism," Sarkozy told a cheering, flag-waving crowd of about 30,000 that including many French music and film stars, and several top-ranking ministers.
He sent out a ringing appeal to France's "silent majority," pledging, if elected, to look out for the interests of ordinary citizens and the downtrodden.
"Of all the unfortunate people, broken by life, used up by life, I want to be the spokesman," a sweat-drenched Sarkozy told the crowd. "I want to be the one who gives them back a voice and who gives them power."
Royal, aspiring to become France's first woman president, promised "confrontation" in the two-hour televised debate on Wednesday and acknowledged that she will have to come from behind to win next Sunday's runoff.
"It's difficult, because I think there have been 200 polls saying that Nicolas Sarkozy is going to win," Royal told Canal Plus television on Sunday. "But voters are free."
The French are eager for new direction after 12 years under President Jacques Chirac, whose term is coming to an end amid economic malaise and a widespread sense that France is adrift in its identity in the world.
Royal, 53, or Sarkozy, 52, will be the first French leader born after World War II. And they have inspired voters: turnout was 84 percent in the April 22 primary, the highest level for a first-round vote in decades.
Both Royal and Sarkozy have promised to get France back on its feet _ but offer starkly different ways of doing that. Sarkozy would loosen labor laws and cut taxes to invigorate the sluggish economy, while Royal would hike government spending and preserve France's generous worker protections.
Sarkozy is vocally pro-American, saying France and the United States have an ideological kinship that transcends differences over the Iraq war. Royal recently said France will not "get down on bended knees before George Bush!" _ tapping into widespread French distaste for the U.S. administration.
Royal has sought to capitalize on a "Anything But Sarkozy" movement grounded in fear that he is too impulsive and emotional for the job as head of state.
While interior minister, Sarkozy infuriated many black and Arab immigrants and their children by calling troublemakers from poor neighborhoods "racaille" _ or scum _ and vowing to clean up those areas "with a power sprayer." Such zones were swept up by riots in late 2005.
At Sunday's rally, Sarkozy stood behind his controversial comments, reminding supporters he made the remark about the power sprayer in response to the death an 11-year-old, killed in crossfire between rival gangs.
"I regret nothing," he said, stressing the loss to the boy's parents.
The rally, at an indoor Paris stadium, ended with a rendition of "La Marseillaise," France's national anthem _ with Sarkozy singing along. Royal, bucking the leftist tradition, began singing the anthem at her rallies. She is to hold her final Paris rally on Tuesday.
Opponents of Royal, a former families and schools minister who heads a regional government in western France, have sought to project her as wishy-washy, inexperienced, with more style than substance.
"We don't need a president who changes her ideas as often as she does her skirts," Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told the cheering crowd at Sunday's rally. "The world is complicated, the world is dangerous."
As the campaign grows more heated, with both sides accusing the other of unfair personal attacks, Royal said the debate will offer "a much clearer confrontation." She revealed what her strategy for the TV debate may be: calling on Sarkozy to account for his past five years in the Cabinet.
Sarkozy, speaking separately on the same program on Sunday, rejected persistent recent speculation that debating the first woman with a clear shot at the French presidency could be perilous for him.
"This idea amounts to saying that you don't debate with a woman the same way you would a man _ I think it's rather macho," said Sarkozy. "When you debate a woman, do you have to speak more softly? Do you make arguments that are weaker?"
"For me, women are equally as intelligent, equally hardworking," he said, adding that Royal, "a political figure," "shouldn't be reduced to her femininity."
A poll released Sunday by the Ipsos agency put support for Sarkozy at 52.5 percent and Royal at 47.5 percent. The poll of 1,367 registered voters was conducted Thursday, Friday and Saturday. No margin of error was given.
Eds: Associated Press Writer Elaine Ganley contributed to this report.