"Either we defend universal values of human rights, and that counts for the Chechens just as it counts for the French, or we don't defend them," Sarkozy said on Europe-1 radio.
"I know perfectly well that the Russian national sentiment has suffered painful challenges in recent years ... but nonetheless, Russian democracy has progress to make," he said.
"We have the right to say to a large country, 'Listen, there are some things that are not going well,"' Sarkozy said. "I would say it calmly, serenely, firmly."
Human rights groups have assailed President Jacques Chirac - who is from the same conservative camp as Sarkozy - and other European leaders for not taking Putin to task for alleged torture and other abuses in Chechnya by Russian forces and allied paramilitaries.
Chirac allied with Putin in opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the two leaders have had congenial relations in recent years.
In Putin's seven years in power, Russia has seen a steady rollback of many of the political and media freedoms won after the Soviet collapse. Two wars in Chechnya over the past 13 years between federal forces and separatist rebels, who increasingly voice militant Islamic ideology, have left much of the republic in ruins. An estimated 100,000 civilians, soldiers and insurgents have died in Chechnya since 1994.
The choice of the city of Helsinki is not incidental as the capital of Finland had hosted US-Soviet negotiations on the limitation of nuclear stockpiles in 1969