Profile: Dazzle turns to dust for France's Sarkozy

PARIS Tue Apr 17, 2012 8:38pm IST

France's President and UMP party candidate for re-election in the 2012 French election, Nicolas Sarkozy, gestures as he delivers a speech before building trade professionals as part of his campaign in Paris, April 17, 2012. REUTERS/Thibault Camus/Pool

France's President and UMP party candidate for re-election in the 2012 French election, Nicolas Sarkozy, gestures as he delivers a speech before building trade professionals as part of his campaign in Paris, April 17, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Thibault Camus/Pool

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PARIS (Reuters) - In five years, Nicolas Sarkozy has gone from a man who won over a nation with raw and punchy speeches that promised to put money in workers' pockets to the most unpopular president to seek re-election in France.

The conservative's fiery 2007 campaign and determination to reach the top despite being the son of a Hungarian immigrant without the elite upbringing of his political peers drew young voters, factory workers and centrists to rally behind him.

As he fights an uphill battle to win a second term on May 6, the impetuous, aggressive manner that lifted him then is not only failing to seduce voters angry over economic gloom but appears to be weighing hard against him.

Sarkozy, who prefers expensive watches, polo shirts and pop music to fine cheese, wine and literature and comes across at times more like a street fighter than a head of state, has been stuck at the bottom of popularity polls since early in his term.

A survey by pollster Ifop published a week before the first-round vote on April 22 found 64 percent of respondents are unhappy with him as president and only 36 percent satisfied, despite his deft handling of a string of international crises.

The only other incumbent to run for re-election with almost as low a score was conservative Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who lost the 1981 election to Socialist Francois Mitterrand, dragged down by a 40 percent popularity rating.

Sarkozy's biggest failure in the eyes of many voters is that rather than putting an end to the scourge of unemployment, as he passionately promised, jobless claims have surged by 750,000 to their highest level in 12 years due to the economic crisis.

His main reforms - raising the retirement age to 62 from 60, loosening the 35-hour work week, giving universities more autonomy and tweaking the tax system to encourage overtime and home ownership - have earned him little credit with voters.

In his 2012 campaign, Sarkozy has pledged to reform labour markets and the tax system to bolster industry and job creation, promised to halve legal immigration and offered referendums on key policies in a bid to turn things in his favour.

Yet many ordinary French people say they are repelled by his brash personal style and may cast their votes to get rid of Sarkozy rather than out of enthusiasm for his Socialist challenger, Francois Hollande.

Centrists are alienated by the tough positions Sarkozy has taken on immigration and Europe to try to win back votes from the far-right National Front. Even his own supporters felt queasy at the publicity that surrounded the break up of his marriage months into his term and his whirlwind courtship of supermodel Carla Bruni, who became his third wife.

"I MADE A MISTAKE"

Sarkozy, 57, recently apologised for rude outbursts early in his term and admitted he sent the wrong message by celebrating his 2007 election victory with millionaire buddies at a swanky restaurant and borrowing a businessman's yacht.

He voiced regret for having tried to secure a plum public sector job for his student son and for snapping at a fisherman who insulted him during a heated exchange in 2007 over fuel costs. He has vowed to be a different president if re-elected.

"I made a mistake," he told France 2 television of the fisherman incident. "When somebody insults me I don't like it, but as a president I shouldn't have reacted like that."

Still, his popularity ratings have improved little and many middle-of-the-road voters who backed him in 2007 say they will vote for the left or even cast a blank vote this time around.

A lawyer by training, Sarkozy built his political base as mayor of the upmarket Parisian suburb of Neuilly and gained national attention by striding into a nursery school to rescue infants taken hostage by a man dubbed the "Human Bomb".

He became right-hand man to Prime Minister Edouard Balladur in 1993-95, serving as budget minister and spokesman for Balladur's unsuccessful presidential campaign, turning his back on his former mentor, Jacques Chirac. When Chirac won in 1995, Sarkozy spent seven years in the political wilderness.

He returned as a tough interior minister in 2002-04 and 2005-07, serving as finance minister in 2004-05, when he won control of the governing UMP party against Chirac's wishes.

When the global financial crisis exploded in 2008, Sarkozy adopted an anti-capitalist tone, vowing to punish speculators and advocating a strong state role in the economy. He led the European response and helped create the G20 summits of major world economies, drawing in the big emerging nations.

He improved ties with Washington, returning French forces to NATO's military command for the first time since 1966, negotiated a ceasefire in a brief 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, and led Western military action in Libya last year.

Mocked for his platform heels and fidgety manner, the diminutive Sarkozy has tried to act more presidential, but has recently slid back into vitriolic exchanges with political opponents or reporters.

(Reporting By Catherine Bremer; Editing by Paul Taylor)

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