François Hollande, the leading challenger for the French presidency, has described the banking industry as a faceless ruler and his “true adversary”.

As he launched in earnest his campaign to become France’s first socialist head of state since the mid-1990s, Mr Hollande said he would seek a Franco-German treaty to overturn the “dominance of finance” and re-orient Europe towards growth and big industrial projects.

At a rally on the outskirts of Paris in front of thousands of supporters on Sunday afternoon, he said: “My true adversary does not have a name, a face, or a party. He never puts forward his candidacy, but nevertheless he governs. My true adversary is the world of finance.”

Decrying the “fiscal gifts” handed out to the finance industry during the eurozone crisis and regularly evoking the rise in inequality in France, he said: “Every­thing is downgraded – not just our credit rating.”

Mr Hollande promised, if elected, to separate the investment activities of French banks from their other operations, ban them from tax havens and establish a “public” credit ­rating agency for Europe.

He also promised higher taxes for people earning more than €150,000 a year and attacked the “new aristocracy” of today’s super-rich. A financial transaction tax would be introduced, with France acting with other European countries willing to participate.

Mr Hollande, who also suggested a ban on stock options and imposing more regulation of bonuses, has a comfortable lead in the polls over Nicolas Sarkozy, the unpopular incumbent. But he has been heavily criticised for his lacklustre performance so far in the campaign, with some questioning whether he has the stature or political conviction to be a credible president.

In a powerful speech that advisers said he had written himself over the weekend, the socialist candidate came out fighting, looking to make an impression on the broader French public by taking aim at some carefully chosen national bêtes noires. These included globalisation, unemployment and shrinking domestic industry. But uppermost were bankers.

If victorious, Mr Hollande said he would next year “propose to the German chancellor [Angela Merkel] a new Franco-German treaty exactly 50 years after the founding act of Charles de Gaulle and Konrad ­Adenauer”, the treaty that forms the basis for co-operation between the two countries.

“It is necessary to open a new cycle in Europe,” he said. “That is to say one of economic, industrial and energy co-operation between our two countries.”

Making pointed allusions to Mr Sarkozy being the “bling, bling” president because of his taste for the high life, Mr Hollande said: “I will be the president who ends the privileges.”

The speech gave him a chance to address critics who claim he lacks substance, genuine socialist beliefs – he was raised in Normandy by conservative parents – and that the French public does not really know who he is. “The marshmallow” and “Mr Mayonnaise” are among the crueller nicknames.

Coming on to the stage after Yannick Noah, a former tennis player who is now France’s most popular celebrity, Mr Hollande spoke at length about his own upbringing.

“I have always followed the line on which I was fixed,” he said. “I am a socialist. The left did not come to me through heritage. It was necessary for me to move towards it.”

The response from supporters in the hall, including Christian Lacroix, the fashion designer, was predictably rapturous.

Opinion polls due this week will reveal whether he is winning over the wider French public.

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