French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he was the man to defend a "strong France" as he announced his re-election bid with 10 weeks to the vote and his Socialist rival leading in opinion polls.
Portraying himself as a tough realist as France faces a crisis "unknown since World War II" and dismissing frontrunner Francois Hollande as a dreamer, Sarkozy on Wednesday said he felt it was his duty to seek a new five-year term.
"Yes, I am a candidate in the presidential election," Sarkozy said in an interview on France's TF1 television.
"I took this decision because France, Europe and the world have for the last three years seen a series of unprecedented crises, which means that not seeking a new mandate from the French people would be abandoning my duties."
Sarkozy presented himself as "the captain of a boat in the heart of a storm" and promised, "The French people must understand that if France is strong, they will be protected. France is a shield for each of us."
Sarkozy slammed Hollande's left-wing campaign programme, which promises significant state spending and the creation of thousands of teaching jobs.
"Do you really believe that in the current economic climate, we can tell the French people that we do not need to make savings?" he said.
"In my long political career I have seen many people promise a dream. Those dreams always turned into nightmares," he said, directly attacking Hollande's pledge to revive "the French dream".
Hollande had pre-empted Sarkozy's declaration by staging a massive campaign rally in his hometown in Rouen, televised live just minutes before the president's interview. He lashed out at Sarkozy's record.
"The script has been written: the incumbent candidate will promise new things. He will try to turn his weaknesses into strengths. He has been wrong for five years and now he calls that experience," Hollande said.
"He'll pretend that a diet of austerity is a 21st century solution, that we must forget his record, that the crisis has passed, everything is forgotten, that only the future counts," Hollande said.
Sarkozy, 57, has been operating on a de facto campaign schedule of television appearances and twice-weekly regional tours for months now, but had yet to officially confirm his candidacy.