NICOLAS Sarkozy pinned his dwindling hopes of re-election on Tuesday night on wooing the far-Right electorate, saying there are "too many immigrants in France" and that their integration is increasingly failing.
With support for the incumbent conservative ebbing and the victory of Socialist candidate François Hollande looking surer by the day, Mr Sarkozy made a series of proposals aimed at wooing back National Front sympathisers who voted for him en masse in 2007 but have since become disillusioned.
"Our system of integration is working more and more badly, because we have too many foreigners on our territory and we can no longer manage to find them accommodation, a job, a school," Mr Sarkozy said.
The president has clearly veered Right since formally announcing his re-election campaign two weeks ago, and FN candidate Marine Le Pen has accused him of liberally borrowing from her manifesto.
In an almost two-and-a-half hour television grilling, a combative Mr Sarkozy insisted that while immigration could remain "a boon" for France in many areas, it would have to toughen residency qualifications for newcomers.
"Over the five year term I think that to restart the process of integration in good conditions, we must divide by two the number of people that we welcome, that's to say to pass from 180,000 per year to 100,000," he said.
He also unveiled plans to limit some welfare benefits currently available to immigrant workers to those who have enjoyed residency for ten years and have worked for five of those.
Mr Sarkozy had already sparked controversy ahead of last night's programme by calling for all kosher and halal products to be labelled to inform consumers whether food is prepared in accordance with Islamic and Jewish law.
The proposal followed Miss Le Pen's claims that kosher and halal meat is being sold in French supermarkets with no notification to customers.
Mr Sarkozy believes securing the far-Right vote is the only way to gain sufficient momentum to finish ahead of Mr Hollande in round one of elections on April 22 and in a second round run-off on May 6.
But the food labelling proposals have been sharply criticised by leading representatives of France's Jewish and Muslim communities and split his own Right-wing UMP party.
Alain Juppé, the foreign minister, criticised the debate as a "false problem" while François Fillon, the prime minister fuelled controversy by urging Muslims and Jews to abandon the notion of halal and kosher foods outright, saying they were outdated.
Mr Sarkozy's push Right came as a fresh poll suggested Mr Hollande had widened his lead in round one to 30 per cent support, up two percentage points, while Mr Sarkozy gained one point to 28 per cent.
But Mr Hollande enjoys a wide lead over Mr Sarkozy in round two, the CSA poll found, beating him by 54 per cent to 46 per cent, unchanged from the previous month.
Another poll found that 74 per cent of French people said their mind was made up concerning Mr Sarkozy.
Miss Le Pen, head of the far-Right National Front, fell back two percentage points to 15 per cent support in the first round, while leftist Front de Gauche candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon gained 1 point to 10 per cent.
The poll found that a large majority of French voters were disappointed by a campaign, complaining of too much mud-slinging and not enough emphasis on policy.
On Tuesday night, Mr Sarkozy once again laid into his Socialist rival, saying he was surprised he was their candidate as he had "never led anything" and "doesn't know how to say no".
Mr Sarkozy's popularity rose slightly after his official campaign launch in which he promised to be the president of the people against elites, countering claims he has spent five years being the "president of the rich".
But Mr Hollande gained ground with a surprise pledge to introduce a 75 per cent income tax rate for those earning more than €1 million (£830,000) a year – a move 61 per cent of the French back, one poll found.
With voters' mind increasingly made up, Le Parisien newspaper wrote: "The result of the election is a foregone conclusion". Libération, the left-wing daily, said that the French had "solidly and profoundly fallen out of love with the outgoing President".
All eyes are now on a huge rally in Villepinte near Paris on Sunday before up to 60,000 supporters – which his camp hopes will set him back on course.
Mr Sarkozy also took a swipe at Britain during his interview, saying unemployment in the UK had shot up 60 per cent in the past five years while France had only 17 per cent more job seekers - a figure only bettered by Germany.
He repeatedly apologised for unpresidential behaviour early on in his mandate, saying he "made a mistake" in helping his son Jean become head of France's biggest business district and famously telling a farmer who insulted him in 2008 to "get lost you stupid jerk".
But he strenuously denied opposition claims he was the "president of the rich", calling them a "shameful lie". "France is the country with the highest taxes in Europe along with Sweden...something of which I am not proud," he said.
"It is the only one in Europe to have kept a tax on big fortunes."
In a fierce debate with the former Socialist prime minister, Laurent Fabius, he said: "I don't have many lessons to receive from a man who backed Dominique Strauss-Kahn for President."