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Sarkozy seeks presidency again, promising 'strong France'

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has presided over a deep economic recession since taking office, formally threw his hat into the ring to seek another term.

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French elections take place in two rounds, one on April 22 and one on May 5. First round polls show Mr. Hollande at 28 percent, Sarkozy at 24 percent, far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen with an eye-opening 20 percent, and centrist Francois Bayrou at 13 percent.

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But it is the second round polls – which show Hollande besting Sarkozy by 12 to 15 points – that keeps the president’s re-election staff up at night.

Running against the economy

France lost its Triple-A credit rating last month and faces large deficits. When Sarkozy took office in 2007 as France’s youngest president, promising a radical break with the past, unemployment was 5 percent. Today, after five years of a slumping economy, it is closer to 10 percent.

Jobs will be the centerpiece of Sarkozy’s reelection bid. He said last night he will ask those getting unemployment benefits to be signed up to job training, and will initiate a referendum to ask French voters if those in training can be allowed to reject job offers they do not like. It’s a reprise of his 2007 strategy to appeal to a conservative French working class, when he ran as the champion of the “The France that gets up early to go to work in the morning.”

"There's a part of France that no longer believes in anything," Sarkozy said. "In my second term, I will give a voice to the French people, through the referendum… For 30 to 40 years we have devalued work. I want to protect the unemployed. Not just with benefits, but by giving them a chance to do another job," he said.

Hollande, and Mr. Bayrou, who also ran in 2007, have characterized the referendum as part of a Sarkozy-led culture war that will play on emotions and divide France further.  

Despite its image, France is essentially conservative. Sarkozy has shifted from appealing to a broad center to to the political right. In his TV address he alluded to the tradition of Joan of Arc, a figure that is heralded by Ms. Le Pen. It's rumored that in the coming weeks he will play further on the subject of immigration.  

He alienated Turkey to gain Armenian voters by supporting a French bill criminalizing denial of the Armenian genocide, and this week said he supported a a proposed "Napoleon theme park" to be built on the far outskirts of Paris.

Last night Le Pen, whose father Jean Marie Le Pen is known as the architect of right-wing political parties in Europe, compared Sarkozy to a magician, saying “but we already know the tricks…it will be hard to pull off another magic act.”

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