President Emmanuel Macron attended his first major rally of the French election campaign on Saturday, eight days from the first round of voting as late momentum for his far-right rival Marine Le Pen keeps the prospect of an upset alive.
Mr Macron addressed a packed crowd at a slick campaign event in Paris, where he bumped fists with some of his flag-waving supporters as music and fireworks accompanied his arrival on the stage.
Reeling off achievements of the past five years including tax cuts and low unemployment, Mr Macron promised to tackle a growing cost-of-living crisis which voters said is a higher priority than the war in Ukraine.
Mr Macron, 44, used the Russian invasion to delay his entry into the race until the last moment and make a show of statesmanship which analysts said helped him into a commanding position in the race.
“We are here in this grave moment, marked by war, to remind ourselves that France always has something to say to the world,” he said.
The latest surveys suggested he and Ms Le Pen are on course to qualify for the final run-off in what would be a repeat of the second round in 2017, which Mr Macron won by a landslide.
But polls show Mr Macron with a narrower lead this time and suggest Ms Le Pen is strengthening her position before nationalist rival Eric Zemmour, the centre-right Valerie Pecresse and the left-wing Jean-Luc Melenchon.
Meanwhile, a furore over large sums of money spent by the government on US management consultancy McKinsey has jolted a president who has struggled to shake off a reputation as a president for the rich.
Ms Le Pen described the McKinsey revelations as a scandal and said they showed Mr Macron's “distrust for the French people whose opinion he holds for useless".
Her campaign emphasised social policy themes such as schools and housing in the race's final days as a cost-of-living crisis develops across Europe.
“There is a great dynamic, a hope that is emerging as the campaign nears it end,” said Ms Le Pen, whose efforts to moderate her image have coincided with the emergence of Mr Zemmour to her right.
Mr Macron's five-year term has been overshadowed by crises including the coronavirus pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the sometimes violent “yellow vest” protests, but he used the rally to proclaim progress on social issues such as unemployment.
He has also used France's six-month presidency of the European Council, which happens to coincide with the election, to push his long-cherished agenda of greater “European sovereignty” in the world, while some of his rivals have been tarnished by their records of Russia-friendly statements.
The president thanked campaigners from his Republic On The Move party, which shook up French politics after he founded it in 2016, for working for him despite what he admitted was impatience that he did not formally enter the race until March 3.
Voters from mainstream parties have previously put differences aside to keep Ms Le Pen and her father Jean-Marie Le Pen out of power. The top two candidates in the first round on April 10 progress to the run-off on April 24.
The Socialist Party, relegated from first place to fifth at the last election, has nominated Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, while European Parliament member Yannick Jadot is running under an environmentalist banner.
Mr Melenchon will address an open-air meeting in Toulouse on Sunday after jumping before Ms Pecresse and Mr Zemmour in to third place in the polls.