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.

Philippe Wojazer/REUTERS
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy (R) greets well-wishers as he campaigns for his re-election as the UMP political party candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, before his first political rally in Annecy February 16. Sarkozy declared his candidacy for a second term on Wednesday, seeking to overturn a wide opinion poll deficit with promises to get the unemployed back to work and to listen more to French voters by calling referendums on reforms.

Trailing in polls and criticized by supporters for taking too long to unleash his formidable campaign skills, Nicolas Sarkozy has finally made his reelection campaign official, telling France, “Yes, I’m a candidate in the presidential election.”

During his television announcement last night, the French leader broke briefly with his unapologetic style to say he will listen to voter concerns about unemployment, and admitted falling short on sweeping reforms he promised in 2007.

"If you want to make me say I haven't achieved everything, that is for sure,”  Mr. Sarkozy said in a 45-minute talk watched by 10 million. "I don't know anyone who has succeeded in everything.”

Sarkozy mainly presented himself as the French protector-in-chief. Facing Socialist Party frontrunner François Hollande amid a wrenching debt crisis, Sarkozy said he has the necessary experience, is the “captain of the ship” and will not “abandon his post” in the storm. His re-election motto is “Strong France.”

Can he present a fresh image?

The daily newspaper Le Parisian said Thursday that Sarkozy succeeded in presenting a “fresh image.” The first official Sarkozy Twitter account was opened yesterday, along with the “La France Forte” website. However, a "Sarko ca Suffit" Twitter hashtag – "Sarko we've had enough" – was also trending last night. 

The high-energy Sarkozy evokes fascination abroad as a leader who launched French jets last spring in Libya and is married to a popular model and singer. But his negatives at home approach 70 percent, where he is often seen as too gauche for a president and more in tune with the French "1 percent" than the 99 percent.

Unlike his successful 2007 campaign, Sarkozy must now run on a record and a reputation. The longtime French observer Christine Ockrent wrote in the Guardian this week that Sarkozy’s strengths in 2007 have become his weaknesses.

“The truth is that all the characteristics that made Sarkozy so appealing to a majority five years ago have become his frailties: his energy has turned into restlessness, his casual style into tastelessness, his pragmatism into cynicism and lack of conviction. There is intense Sarkozy fatigue in France,” she wrote.

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.

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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