PARIS: French President Nicolas Sarkozy will compete with trade unions to draw the biggest May Day crowd on Tuesday, seeking to steal the limelight from their annual street march in the final countdown to Sunday's election runoff.
Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande is not taking part in the May 1 activities. Unions, who will have leading Socialists as guests of honour at their march, accuse Sarkozy of hijacking the celebration of workers' rights for political ends.
Also clamouring for space, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, whose surprise 17.9 percent score in an April 22 first-round ballot threw the last fortnight of the election race into disarray, will head the National Front's annual "Joan of Arc Day" rally, a nationalistic display of patriotism.
Coming bang in the middle of the election finale, the centuries-old May Day celebration falls on the eve of a sole television debate between Sarkozy and Hollande, and just as the campaign has turned toxic with allegations of scandal and dirty tricks and a presidential lawsuit.
"The fact that one of the two presidential finalists is doing this is a very worrying sign for where democracy is going," Francois Chereque, head of the CFDT union, told the daily Liberation. "Every time in history this holiday has been used politically, it was part of an anti-democratic drift."
Sarkozy said he hoped to draw "tens of thousands" of people to hear him speak at Trocadero Square, across the Seine river from the Eiffel Tower, in the latest of a series of open-air rallies that radical leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon brought into vogue during his campaigning for the first round.
The less combative Hollande will avoid a clash by staying away from the street marches and attending a memorial ceremony for the late Socialist Prime Minister Pierre Beregovoy, who took his life on May 1, 1993.
The temperature of the election race rose further on Monday as Sarkozy filed a lawsuit against investigative news website Mediapart over an article alleging deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's government sought to fund his 2007 election campaign.
Sarkozy also tried to embarrass his opponent Hollande by turning the spotlight on former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was favourite for the Socialist nomination until he was arrested on rape allegations last year.
Sarkozy lags Hollande by 6-10 points in opinion polls for the runoff and has raised eyebrows with a harsh discourse on borders and immigration in the days since Le Pen's strong first-round score, seeking to secure her voters for the May 6 round.
Opinion polls show that droves of blue-collar workers who voted for Sarkozy in 2007 have drifted back to the far right, disillusioned with his failure to curb rampant and rising unemployment as France was hit by economic crisis.
The president is now struggling to win them back as his election campaign attacks on trade unions have angered many.
He drew further criticism last week when he said his May Day event would showcase "real work" as opposed to secure jobs at state-run firms, a term he has said he regretted after it provoked outrage.
"This sort of rhetoric, which divides people, has become unbearable," Francois Chereque, head of the CFDT union, said.
The National Front has used May 1 to celebrate Joan of Arc Day since 1988, when party-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen introduced the tradition to appeal to Catholic voters.
Sometimes known as the Maid of Orleans, the Saint has been seized upon by the far-right as a nationalist symbol, credited with awakening the national consciousness by leading the French against the English and securing the coronation of Charles V.
Around half of Le Pen's supporters say they plan to vote for Sarkozy in the runoff, but the rest will either vote Hollande or abstain. Le Pen has said she could give her supporters second-round voting advice at her midday speech on Tuesday.
The CFDT has not endorsed a candidate, while the CGT union has urged its members to "vote against Sarkozy".
Prime Minister Francois Fillon sought to calm the debate on Monday, telling RTL radio that they needed to avoid any "derogatory comments" on unions which he said were vital to the proper functioning of the economy.