PARIS President Nicolas Sarkozy's efforts to reconnect with a disgruntled French public in a high-energy re-election campaign may be playing in his favour, an opinion poll published on Tuesday suggested.
The survey, carried out by pollster LH2 as Sarkozy launched his campaign seeking to overturn a widespread personal dislike of him and gloom over the economy, found his popularity score rose by 8 points from early January, to 38 percent.
It was Sarkozy's highest level in a year. The poll also recorded a drop in the number of people giving him a negative opinion to 58 percent from 65 percent in early January.
The straight-talking conservative was wildly popular when he won power in May 2007 but his showy and sometimes brash style soon grated on many people and he has battled with dismal popularity ratings for much of the past four years.
He is heading into the two-round election on April 22 and May 6 trailing Socialist Francois Hollande, whom polls show could defeat him by 12 points in a runoff if the vote were held today.
Sarkozy told his first two rallies last week that he wanted to be a president of the people and would give the public a voice in policy by holding regular referendums. He sounded a patriotic note on Sunday, speaking at length of his love of France.
Those speeches, along with a January 29 television appearance and a polished interview with a supportive news magazine "have visibly been very beneficial to him", LH2 said.
Separately, a survey by TNS Sofres published on Monday found that 76 percent of respondents found Hollande more congenial than Sarkozy but 72 percent thought Sarkozy was a better decision maker.
STEEL TO BEEF
Sarkozy kept up the pace on Tuesday, visiting a wholesale Paris food market to quash accusations by far-right leader Marine Le Pen that households around the capital are all unwittingly eating halal meat, then racing to the west coast and pledging to try to save an idled steelworks from closure.
The ArcelorMittal steel mill at Florange, northeast France, has been idle for months due to a dearth of orders, making it an election battleground as Sarkozy and Hollande both pledge to fix flagging industrial competitiveness.
Workers began occupying management offices at the plant on Monday, and are hoping that Hollande might make a campaign stop there as their plight turns political.
Sarkozy, who is working flat out to catch up on Hollande who started campaigning weeks ago, said he had spoken to the plant's management by telephone and hoped the plant could be saved.
Visiting the Rungis food market, Sarkozy poured cold water on Le Pen's allegation that abattoirs supplying beef to the Paris area were using the throat-slitting methods required by Muslim buyers on all meat, in order to cut costs.
Sarkozy said that only 2.5 percent of the 200,000 tonnes of beef consumed each year in the Paris area was halal, figures backed up at a news conference by meat trade union SNIV.
Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire said a December 28 government decree that will go into effect in July, enforcing more transparency in abattoir methods, should help calm the controversy fanned by Le Pen after a TV documentary questioned the killing methods.
Fluctuations in Sarkozy's popularity do not always affect voter intentions, although an opinion poll published on Friday showed his campaign launch helped him eat into Hollande's lead.
On Tuesday, a monthly poll by Ipsos-Logica for various French media showed support for Hollande and Sarkozy unchanged in both voting rounds at 32 percent and 25 percent respectively for round one and 59 percent and 41 percent for the runoff.
The poll had Le Pen unchanged at 16 percent in round one and centrist Francois Bayrou down 1.5 points to 11 percent.
(Reporting Marion Douet and Thierry Leveque in Paris and Yann Le Guernigou in Ayrete; Writing by Catherine Bremer)