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Last Updated: Sunday, 8 April 2007, 07:15 GMT 08:15 UK
Sarkozy puts wine country in ferment
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC correspondent, Avignon, France

Baptiste Grangeon
Sarkozy is not perfect but still the best option, this winemaker says
The vines on the rolling hills around Chateauneuf-du-Pape are still bare as Baptiste Grangeon walks up the perfectly straight rows.

He inspects each one, tying some tidily with twine to ensure the vines grow straight and strong.

The 28-year-old is the third generation of his family to tend the valuable family vineyards, which produce up to 100,000 bottles a year.

But, he says with a sigh, doing business in France is getting harder every year, amid a tangle of bureaucracy, red tape and high taxes.

Baptiste Grangeon believes the Socialists' 35-hour working week has made the French lazy, as well as creating ever more complex rules for working out payments and social security for his labourers.

Wine-making, he says, means long periods of patient waiting, interspersed with relentless hours of hard work during the annual harvest.

"Nicolas Sarkozy is the only man who can save France," he says. "Many in France have forgotten what it means to work, and we need someone to remind us."

Campaign bandwagon

So Mr Grangeon has come to join the crowds thronging to hear Mr Sarkozy on the stump in the picturesque village of Saint-Didier, a rural community in southern France which has traditionally voted for the right.

Its main street is neat and tidy, with bunting up for its important visitor, and the local town councillors proudly wearing their tricolour sash as they wait for Mr Sarkozy to arrive.

Presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy
The media glare on Sarkozy has been intense and prolonged
Mr Grangeon, too, is hoping to shake his hero's hand. But getting close to the candidate is no easy task.

The diminutive Mr Sarkozy is constantly at the centre of a seething mass of humanity, surrounded by the cameras, his admiring fans and his anxious bodyguards.

He has been on the campaign trail for several weeks, and even his legendary energy is running a little low - though his temper is not.

When I finally get close enough, I ask Mr Sarkozy what he hopes to achieve for France if he is elected president.

"I've been talking about that all day, Madame," he snaps, before going on to reply to the gaggle of journalists and cameras around him.

"For my past five years in government as a minister, I have fought for the French people. I am now totally at their disposal, a free man, no longer interior minister but simply a presidential candidate, free to speak to the French people directly.

"I am a man of action, and I will do everything I can for France."

Warm reception

In his speech, to cheers from the crowd of winemakers, farmers and small businessmen, Mr Sarkozy emphasises the need for the French to stop counting on the state and rely on themselves instead. Baptiste Grangeon nods approvingly.

"He is a very popular man - I have never seen such crowds here. And he may not be perfect, but which politician is?

If he does not win, I shall leave France
Patrick Oumedjkane
"For me, he is the best president for France. He tells the truth and he will change things here."

Others, like student Remy and housewife Anne-Marie are equally enthusiastic.

"It's really hard to find a job if you're young in France, so I really hope he makes it easier," says Remy, 18. "I believe he will if he's elected."

"He will make us respect work again, and reunite the country," hopes Anne-Marie.

'Rebuilding France'

Later on, Mr Sarkozy and the media scrum move on to Avignon, where the candidate is rallying the party faithful in the ancient Pope's Palace, the grand setting in which Jacques Chirac launched his own successful presidential campaign.

There, he speaks of the need for the nation to act and think as one. He assures his audience that the issue of national identity he has taken up as a campaign theme is not about excluding those French with immigrant roots, but including all in his project to rebuild France as a great economic success story, and restore France's pride in itself.

Pope's Palace, Avignon
Avignon provided a grand, theatrical setting for Sarkozy
Among his audience is Patrick Oumedjkane, a businessman with Algerian roots, who runs his own security business hiring out security guards and watch-dogs.

So why does he believe that Mr Sarkozy is France's only hope for the future?

"In France today, the taxes are too high, our social charges are too high and the Socialist Segolene Royal's ideas on raising the minimum wage are a nightmare. Mr Sarkozy understands business and business people," says Mr Oumedjkane.

"If he does not win, I shall leave France."

With the last rally of the day at the Pope's Palace finally over, Mr Sarkozy clearly hopes that he will soon be moving into equally grand surroundings at the Elysee Palace.

He has certainly won the hearts and minds of France's business-people, its artisans and much of its middle class. But is that enough?

The French electorate is notoriously fickle. And some, especially on the left, fear and dislike Mr Sarkozy for his tough stance on immigration - and worry that his policies would leave the weakest in society vulnerable, and divide this already fractured society still further.

With 50% of the electorate still undecided, Mr Sarkozy is well aware that Ms Royal could still catch up in the polls.

So the coming days will be crucial, as Mr Sarkozy travels the length and breadth of the country, fighting Ms Royal for every vote, every step of the way.

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