CHATEAURENARD, France (REUTERS) - Burkinis must be banned throughout France, former president Nicolas Sarkozy said at his first campaign rally for the 2017 presidential election.
Hundreds of supporters waving French flags chanted his name and applauded as Sarkozy, who led France from 2007-2012 before losing an election to Socialist Francois Hollande, promised to protect the French people.
"I will be the president that re-establishes the authority of the state," Sarkozy told supporters packing a sports hall in Chateaurenard, a Provence town where Sarkozy's Les Republicains just beat the far-right FN in regional elections last year.
Several French coastal towns, including on the Riviera, have banned the full-body swimwear worn by some Muslim women on the grounds that it breaks French laws on secularism.
The bans play into fears over public security following attacks by Islamist militants in Paris, Nice and elsewhere in the past 20 months.
"I refuse to let the burkini impose itself in French beaches and swimming pools... there must be a law to ban it throughout the Republic's territory," he said.
Security and immigration are now central to the presidential election campaign and Sarkozy is tapping into the worries of voters on the right with a hardline platform of law and order.
"In my speech there is no fear, there is no hatred, there is just common sense," Sarkozy said, accusing critics of closing their eyes to ordinary voters' woes.
"The French people are not fascist because they consider there are security problems.
"I want the French to feel they are protected," he said.
Sarkozy announced on Monday he would run in next year's presidential election. He is banking on a tougher image than that of the more centrist, mild-mannered Alain Juppe, his main rival in the November primaries that will choose a conservative candidate for the election.
He won wide applause from the crowd of 2,000 when he said that France's identity was threatened.
While some in the hall said they came out of curiosity, staunch supporters said they had voted twice for him already and would do so again in the late April and early May 2017 election.
"We came here to support him, we'll vote for him because he is dynamic and he has proven during the (US) subprime crisis that he is serious and up to the job," said 77-year-old pensioner Georges Petit, who came to the rally with his wife.
For months, Sarkozy had been behind Juppe in the polls. His popularity started improving with party sympathisers in June as Juppe's campaign was losing steam. His ratings went up further after the attacks on Nice on Bastille Day and on a priest in Normandy.