With reelection prospects dimming, Sarkozy warns his career is 'at the end'

Between the eurozone crisis, rising challenges from rivals, and growing French dissatisfaction with his leadership, Sarkozy has reason to worry about his reelection prospects.

Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a speech to present his New Year wishes to the world of culture in Marseille, France, Tuesday.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is famous for bluntly speaking his mind, and for shining the brightest in the midst of a crisis. But now Mr. Sarkozy faces a crisis that he may not surmount – his reelection – and he is bluntly saying his political career may be over.

The president even told his aides, with a slightly dark Nixonian note, that if he is not reelected in April, “I'll change my life completely, and you won't hear from me again." 

"In any case, I am at the end," Sarkozy said on a trip back from French Guyana Monday night within earshot of reporters who leaked the conversation, despite it being off-the-record. "For the first time in my life I am facing the end of my career." 

France is mired in economic doldrums, capped off with a downgrade of its triple-A credit rating earlier this month. Between that and socialist candidate Francois Hollande, who delivered a tub-thumping speech on Sunday that showed he can move a crowd, Sarkozy faces both a toughening race and poll numbers that may not improve enough by April.

Ironically, Sarkozy has not yet announced whether he will actually run. But his comments Monday suggest he will quit politics only after a political fight. If he doesn't run or runs and does not win, Sarkozy will become the first French president since the 1970s to serve only one term.

In polls this fall, roughly 30 percent of respondents said they would vote for Mr. Hollande in the first round – a strong lead over Sarkozy, with 24 percent. 

Sarkozy could also lose conservative votes to Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front in the first round of elections, and lose centrists to the now-surging candidacy of Francois Bayrou of Democratic Movement.

Hollande is running as an everyman candidate – “Mr. Normal,” as he calls himself. Sarkozy has sought to dramatize Hollande’s lack of office holding experience and to present himself as the man of experience and gravitas.

Sarkozy won office in 2007 as France’s youngest president, promising change or “rupture” from the past, and has been an indefatigable office holder, sometimes compared to the energizer bunny. He married Carla Bruni, a popular model and singer, recently became a new father, and travels widely in and out of Europe in an effort to restore French pride on the world stage, most notably with his leadership on Libya last spring.

But his personal style as a celebrity-president has been controversial, earning him the title of “President Bling Bling” and partly accounts for an oft-noted visceral dislike of him in France, where his disapproval rating runs close at close to 60 percent.

Dominique Moisi, a leading French intellectual at the French Institute for International Relations this week wrote that euro crisis Europe is in the mood to replace ruling governments. “Mr. Sarkozy seems the ideal prey for a left starved of power after so many years in opposition. The French president is rejected not so much for his performance as for his essence.… He seems to have lost the support of rather too many voters.”

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