French President Nicolas Sarkozy speaking at the launch of his manifesto, just 17 days before the first round of voting, said France faced a "historic choice" between his austerity measures or a disastrous return to uncontrolled spending.
"Certain countries in Europe are today on the edge of a precipice," he warned, promising that under his continued leadership France could rediscover "competitiveness, innovation, investment, reduced spending."
Sarkozy accused his Socialist challenger Francois Hollande of promising "a festival of new spending that no-one knows how to pay for, as if the world did not exist, Europe did not exist, the crisis did not exist.
"The situation today that our Spanish friends are going through, that our Greek friends have gone through, reminds us of reality. Look at the situation in Spain, after seven years of Socialist rule," he said.
Spain's budget minister admitted this week that Madrid is in a "critical situation" as government debt and unemployment surge higher—mirroring the problems that led Greece to seek an EU and IMF bail-out last year.
Sarkozy said he had printed millions of copies of a "Letter to the French" outlining their stark choice in the run-up to April 22 and the May 6 run-off, along with millions of copies of his detailed spending plan.
Polls put the frontrunners neck-and-neck in the first round but forecast Hollande will win the May 6 run-off, ending the Socialists' 17-year losing streak and consigning the incumbent to history as a one-term president.
Sarkozy plans to increase sales tax from 19.6 to 21.2 percent, reduce payroll charges on employers, restrict legal immigration, reform professional training, tax exiles and balance the budget by 2016.
Sarkozy also confirmed that he will continue to reduce the size of the French state, principally by not replacing all retiring civil servants, and save 115 billion euros ($150 billion) through cuts and tax rises.
At the launch, he said he would ask the European Union to freeze France's contribution to its common budget, a measure which he said would save 600 million euros, but would not seek to renegotiate the EU fiscal pact.
And he promised to pass the so-called "Golden Rule"—which obliges governments to have a plan to balance their books—within months of his re-election, and to reduce France's deficit to zero by 2016.
Hollande had previously published his own 60-point plan and backed it up this week with a detailed legislative calendar for his first year in office, which he expects to begin with a parliamentary election win in June.
"Change will begin straight away," he declared on Wednesday at a campaign meeting with his former partner, Segolene Royal, the Socialist candidate who was defeated by Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential race.
Hollande is seeking to woo voters resentful of Sarkozy's austerity programme with plans to reduce the speed of spending cuts, renegotiate the EU fiscal pact, cap fuel prices and introduce a 75 percent supertax on high earners.
The Socialist candidate said the left "has never been so ready to govern", a claim dismissed by the Sarkozy, who insisted Hollande's plan to call into question Europe's deficit-reduction commitments was irresponsible.
"The slightest weakening in the course of meeting our undertakings, the slightest gap opening up in the word that France gave, and we face a crisis of confidence and the situation Spain finds itself in," Sarkozy said.
This would mean, he declared, "an astronomical rise in interest rates, a need to cut retirement pensions and reduce salaries."
According to an opinion poll published Wednesday by the CSA institute, which matches other recent surveys, Sarkozy ought to come out on top in the first round with 30 percent of the vote to Hollande's 29 percent.
Among the outsiders, hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon has run a strong campaign so far and is polling at around 15 percent, eating into Hollande's first round support.
Far-right flag-bearer Marine Le Pen is hovering at 13 percent and unlikely to match her father Jean-Marie le Pen's 2002 feat of winning a place in the run-off. Centrist Francois Bayrou has slipped into fifth place.
According to CSA, if the second round were fought this weekend, Hollande would comfortably beat Sarkozy with 54 percent to 46. It found that 59 percent of Hollande's voters were backing him as an "anyone but Sarkozy" candidate.