Election ahead, France's Sarkozy faces crunch time
PARIS (AP) — Nicolas Sarkozy faces an unprecedented challenge if he wants another term. No presidential candidate in France's postwar history has come back from being so far behind so late in the campaign.
If polls can be believed, the brash, risk-taking and unabashedly America-friendly French leader who took center stage in the Libya war and in the fight to save the euro needs something akin to a miracle to get re-elected.
With just 68 days left until the first round of voting in France's presidential ballot, the usually combative Sarkozy has stayed uncharacteristically quiet about whether he will run. But French media say he will announce his candidacy any day — possibly on national TV Wednesday — and are already reporting the names of those on his campaign team.
Despite his successes in international affairs, the conservative Sarkozy has been unpopular at home for most of his first term and has for months trailed Socialist candidate Francois Hollande in the polls.
"If we look at past elections, it's off to a very, very, very bad start," pollster Emmanuel Riviere of TNS Sofres agency said of Sarkozy's campaign. "Never has a president been in such a situation."
A leftist president in France would not only mark a big shift for France after 17 years under conservative rule, but it would also shake up Europe's political calculus. The EU's top powers — Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain — are now either run by leaders on the right or, in Italy's case, by a technocratic caretaker government.
Sarkozy's presidency got off to a rough start in 2007. Public gaffes, tax policies that appeared to favor his rich friends and his jet-setting courtship of supermodel Carla Bruni all damaged his image in the eyes of the French. Since then, France's worst recession since World War II and a still-weak economy have made it hard to rebound.
Polls indicate that Hollande and Sarkozy could finish first and second in the first-round vote on April 22 and then go head-to-head May 6 in the runoff. One poll last week put Hollande a staggering 20 points ahead of Sarkozy in a theoretical second round.
Sarkozy's chances are also hurt by the increasing rise of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who has stirred up anti-Islam sentiment in the country with Europe's largest Muslim population.
This is all assuming Sarkozy throws his hat in the ring. Most pundits see it as inevitable but admit a tactical delay allows him to hold on to his commander-in-chief mantle as long as possible — before morphing into campaigner-in-chief.
"He needs to create a surprise when he announces his candidacy, and it's going to be one of his last cartridges," Riviere said.
Pollsters at the IFOP agency noted that Sarkozy is now in his 49th straight month below a 50-percent approval rating.
Sarkozy's approval rating got a brief bounce up after a joint TV interview in November with President Barack Obama, who is almost universally adored in France. But, as in many countries, foreign affairs tends to take a back seat to domestic concerns in France, and Sarkozy has not appeared to reap benefits of his unprecedented endorsement from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a fellow conservative and ally in battling Europe's debt crisis.
Sarkozy's best hope, pollsters say, is for a flub by Hollande — who has been visibly cautious — or something that would turn attention away from Sarkozy's divisive personality.
"As long as the election remains a sort of referendum for or against Nicolas Sarkozy, public opinion is pretty well set," Jerome Sainte-Marie, a pollster at the CSA agency, told BFM-TV. "But if new themes appear — notably on issues of values — then unexpected moves could happen."
Hollande, a bespectacled 57-year-old, has benefited from his image as the anti-Sarkozy. A CSA poll last week found more than half of respondents said they'd vote for the Socialist to reject Sarkozy — with only a third motivated by Hollande himself.
Sarkozy's strategy, advisers say, will be to cast himself as more credible, frank and reform-minded than Hollande amid Europe's economic uncertainty and able to learn from his mistakes.
With voters elsewhere in Europe ousting leaders in election after election, Sarkozy could be the latest highest-profile casualty done in by Europe's persistently high unemployment and limping growth rates.
In 2007, Sarkozy defeated Hollande's longtime partner, Socialist Segolene Royal, by convincing the French to focus on his record as a crime-fighting interior minister and rally around his pledges to loosen up France's labor protections to boost their purchasing power.
Now, many French feel there's little to show for it, and that he has instead favored his rich friends in business with little consideration for the millions of jobless.
An IFOP poll released Tuesday showed if the April 22 first round vote were held today, Hollande would take 30 percent, followed by Sarkozy at 25 percent, Le Pen with 17.5 percent and center-right candidate Francois Bayrou at 12.5 percent.
The poll of 1,723 adults for Europe 1 radio and Paris Match weekly was conducted Feb. 9-12 and did not provide a margin of error.
Political analyst Dominique Moisi believes Sarkozy's political fate is already sealed, saying the damage from the first two years of his presidency left too indelible a mark.
"He did things that unbalanced the French, he trivialized the presidency, desecrated it," he said. "As things stand today, I think Francois Hollande will be the next president of France."
Sylvie Corbet and Jeff Schaeffer in Paris contributed to this report.