Sarkozy likely to announce today his bid for re-election


FRENCH PRESIDENT Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to declare this evening as a candidate for re-election, setting up a bitter contest with frontrunner François Hollande.

Mr Sarkozy is due to appear on television at 8pm, when he is likely to formally declare his intention to seek a second five-year term in late April.

He had originally planned to leave the announcement until closer to the deadline for nominations in March, but has brought it forward amid concerns in his UMP party over consistently poor opinion poll results.

An Ifop tracking poll last night showed Mr Hollande of the Socialist Party on a first-round vote of 30 per cent (unchanged); Mr Sarkozy up 1 per cent on 25.5 per cent; and National Front leader Marine Le Pen on 17.5 per cent, down 0.5 per cent. In a hypothetical second round between Mr Hollande and Mr Sarkozy, the poll gave the socialist a win by 57 per cent to 43 per cent.

Mr Sarkozy received a boost yesterday when Christine Boutin, a social conservative who had broken with the Sarkozy government and declared her intention to stand against him, withdrew from the race and endorsed the incumbent. Another candidate who could chip into Mr Sarkozy’s vote, the centrist former defence minister Hervé Morin, is reportedly considering dropping out as well.

The withdrawal of those two candidates would help Mr Sarkozy rally the right-wing vote and repel the challenge from Ms Le Pen, who hopes to reach the second-round vote at the expense of Mr Hollande or Mr Sarkozy. Former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin, a long-time rival of the president, is still in the race, but last night’s Ifop poll gave him just 2 per cent support.

Mr Sarkozy’s campaign has been taking shape in recent days. One of the architects of his 2007 victory, Emmanuelle Mignon, has returned to his side, while long-time speech writer Henri Guaino will also be involved. A campaign headquarters in Paris has been chosen, and party leader Jean-François Copé said yesterday the organisation was “in the starting blocks”.

With Mr Sarkozy’s popularity ratings at record lows of close to 30 per cent for much of the past two years and polls showing large numbers of voters have taken a visceral dislike to him, his campaign faces a huge challenge to reconnect with disenchanted supporters. There is speculation that Mr Sarkozy will publish a book next month in which he will acknowledge mistakes he has made and set out his vision for a second term.

He is expected to present himself as an experienced leader who guided France through a global crisis and has the courage to tell the French people hard truths on deficit reduction and spending cuts.

Mr Hollande and Mr Sarkozy have both pledged to balance France’s budget at about the same rate, though the socialist’s promise to hire 60,000 new teachers by raising tax for the rich has been attacked by the right.

Mr Sarkozy’s television appearance will clash with a major speech by Mr Hollande to some 7,000 people in his home city of Rouen tonight.

The socialist candidate played down the announcement, however, saying the president had been in campaign mode for weeks.

“Everyone already knew he was a candidate. It doesn’t change anything about the political situation or my own campaign,” he said.

Mr Sarkozy has recently unveiled a flurry of measures to boost competitiveness and cut labour costs. In an interview last Saturday, he took a firm line on immigration and conservative values, saying he opposed gay marriage and euthanasia.

“The game is far from over. The polls, the comments, all this will be wiped away in the three weeks before the election,” French prime minister François Fillon said this week.