After weeks of what the French press branded "false suspense," President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday night finally announced what everyone expected: He will seek a second term in office.
Sarkozy, 57, said it was unthinkable that he would not want to remain in his post given the "unprecedented crisis in France, Europe and the world."
"It would be like a captain saying at the height of a storm that he was giving up," he said on live television.
The announcement came as Sarkozy's Socialist Party rival, Francois Hollande, has pulled farther ahead in opinion polls. Sarkozy, whose campaign slogan is "A Strong France!" had planned to officially announce his intentions in several weeks, but advisors persuaded him not to wait.
The first balloting in France's two-round presidential election is scheduled April 22. The runoff comes in May.
Sarkozy said of Hollande: "I understand he criticizes me, but does he have any ideas?"
A few hours before his announcement, Sarkozy launched a personal Twitter account. He is expected to give more details of his campaign manifesto Sunday in a major rally in the southern city of Marseille.
In an interview last week with the newspaper Le Figaro, Sarkozy outlined the territory on which he would fight for his political future: immigration, work and the welfare state.
Sarkozy's government has taken a tough line on immigration, including setting targets for the number of illegal immigrants to be expelled and hardening requirements for those applying for French nationality. He has also announced a crackdown on the work-shy and criticized those who could get jobs but live on handouts. The opposition has called his approach divisive and stigmatizing.
In Le Figaro he also defended his recent emphasis on France's "Judeo-Christian roots" — managing to shoehorn in a mention of Joan of Arc — announced a program of sweeping education reforms and declared opposition to gay marriage and adoptions by same-sex couples.
Sarkozy could lose votes to far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, whose popularity among parts of France's working population has been estimated at more than 30%.
A poll shortly before Sarkozy's declaration found that 30% of voters would support Hollande in the election's first round, with 25.5% for Sarkozy, 17.5% for Le Pen — who has not yet gathered the 500 official signatures from mayors required for her to run — and 11.5% for centrist candidate Francois Bayrou.
Polls suggest that in the second round matching the two top vote-getters Hollande would beat Sarkozy by at least 10 percentage points. One survey, however, found that 55% of 18-to-24-year-olds had not made up their minds.
To woo National Front voters, Sarkozy has announced populist measures that include a threat to withdraw social welfare benefits from the unemployed if they turn down a job and said he would call for a referendum on the issue if unions tried to block the move.
"There's a part of France that no longer believes in anything," Sarkozy said. "In my second term, I will give a voice to the French people, through the referendum."
"For 30 to 40 years we have devalued work. I want to protect the unemployed. Not just with benefits, but by giving them a chance to do another job," he said.
Michele Tabarot, a member of Parliament for Sarkozy's ruling right-of-center party, said, "The great machine has been started; we are entering two months of a campaign that will be intense."
"Now the real campaign starts," Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told French radio.
Earlier on Wednesday, Sarkozy's former wife Cecilia Attias, who split with him in 2007 just a few weeks into his presidency and now lives in New York, sent a message of support on Twitter. "Good luck to Nicolas Sarkozy, who is starting his campaign today," she wrote.
Hollande, at a campaign rally in the west of France, accused Sarkozy of causing "conflict, division and damage" during his five years in power.
"France has to make its choice between continuity and change. I propose change," he said. "Not just a change of president, but a change of politics, of method, of perspective of destiny."
Willsher is a special correspondent.