PARIS — What's likely to be a cacophonous list of French presidential candidates was being finalized Friday, but the race is really about two men with starkly different visions for the future of France.
Nicolas Sarkozy wants to make it a leaner, more competitive economy and keep a lid on immigration. Francois Hollande wants to tax the rich more, protect workers and make the country a kinder place — and become the first leftist to win the presidency in a generation.
French voters have six weeks to make up their minds before the balloting begins.
Candidates from the far right, and increasingly the far left, are weighing heavily on the race. How much support they gain in the first round of voting April 22 could swing the crucial runoff May 6. And it will influence parliamentary elections held a month later, in June.
All of which could change the face of France.
The 57-year-old Sarkozy's mood bounced this week after a poll suggested he was finally gaining on front-runner Hollande.
Sarkozy's expressive brow and grin are recognizable far beyond France's borders, after he intervened in wars in Libya and Georgia, and improved relations with the United States and Israel. But the sight of his face inspires visceral anger in his critics, who are legion.
Those on the left say the conservative president's moves to raise the retirement age and limit the power of France's frequent strikes are suffocating the French way of life, in favor of a more American-style, work-until-you-drop ethic.
Sarkozy says change is the only way for France to stay important. But business owners who supported him in the last election in 2007 say his reform momentum fizzled fast, and that he hasn't made it much easier to hire and fire and innovate. And European partners and ratings agencies say he's been too cautious about cutting France's big deficit.
Opponents also blanch at his attacks on immigrants — though he's the son of a Hungarian immigrant himself — and on Muslim practices, such as the ban on Islamic face veils and recent digs about halal meat.
His biggest liability appears to be his own personality.
Tabloids loved his whirlwind romance with former supermodel wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy just months after he divorced in office, but voters felt alienated. They're still angry that he celebrated his 2007 victory on a billionaire friend's yacht.
"He's too Parisian" for rural voters and seen as too "American" in his behavior and style, said Pascal Perrineau, who lectures on political sociology at Paris' Institute for Political Sciences.
Sarkozy's tongue is sharp and quick — too quick sometimes. He lashed out at a journalist during a campaign stop Thursday, the latest in a term full of such outbursts.
Hollande, who's also 57, has led opinion polls for more than half a year as the most likely next president. He led the Socialist Party through a troubled decade, but few of his ideas have energized voters.
Little known abroad, he has worried European leaders by saying he'd refuse to ratify a hard-fought European accord meant to bring eurozone economies closer together.
"I will not sacrifice the interests of my country, never!" he said in a televised debate Thursday night, adding that he wants a "reorientation of Europe." He says the pact focuses too much on austerity and not on stimulating growth.
Often accused of being too soft and not enough of a leader to run "a strong France" — Sarkozy's campaign slogan — Hollande surprised viewers and some on his campaign team with a pledge to tax high-income earners at 75 percent.
He admitted Thursday that it wouldn't make a big dent in the deficit but said it would be a "moral measure" and "send a signal" to voters angry at bankers and traders, and frustrated at high unemployment.
Political scientist Perrineau said, "there's still a spirit of communism" in France, unlike other European countries where the political center has moved to the right.
Hollande sees squeezing immigrants as the wrong answer. "To say 'there are too many foreigners,' does that mean, 'OK, those who are here legally, those who have been here for years, we are going to kick them out'?" he asked Thursday.
He lived for 25 years with Sarkozy's last Socialist challenger, Segolene Royal, who tried in 2007 to become France's first female president.
Friday marked the deadline for candidates to submit signatures to the Constitutional Court of 500 mayors and other elected officials who support their campaign. The court will verify the signatures and publish the final candidate list Monday.
At least 10 candidates are likely on the ballot, with the two biggest vote-getters going on to the second round.
Others include Greens candidate Eva Joly; anti-capitalist candidate Philippe Poutou, Gaullist Nicolas Dupont-Aignan; Nathalie Artaud of the Workers' Struggle movement; and independent Jacques Cheminade.
On the far right, Marine Le Pen is influencing Sarkozy's campaign rhetoric and running a strong third place in polls with her resurgent National Front party and its anti-immigrant, anti-euro platform.Comment on this story
On the far left, Jean-Luc Melenchon is gaining popularity with fiery anti-capitalist discourse that resonates in working-class Paris suburbs. He's holding a rally in Paris on Sunday to "take back the Bastille."
Centrist Francois Bayrou enjoys support of those sick of Sarkozy but wary of extremes, and of traditional Catholics in the heartland.
And while he won't win the presidency, he may be a kingmaker and his voters may determine who does.
Thomas Adamson, Cecile Brisson and Thibault Leroux in Paris contributed to this report.