Sarkozy goes into battle to save lacklustre campaign


The president’s camp has been boosted by a TV debate, but there are divisions over strategy

WHEN NICOLAS Sarkozy appeared on the flagship politics show on France 2 television on Tuesday evening, his body language was that of a man who knew he needed a big performance. The French president’s re-election campaign had lost momentum. His poll ratings had stalled, his ideas were not gaining traction and doubts within his own party were being openly aired for the first time.

Little surprise that he seemed more tense and fidgety than usual.

Sarkozy tends to shine in television debates, where his persuasive powers, combative style and mastery of detail are given an ideal showcase. So it was for his 2½-hour interrogation in front of 5.6 million people this week.

He deflected blame for France’s economic stagnation, claiming both right and left were culpable for 40 years of deficits. He positioned himself as a unifying figure while sending reassuring signals to the far right, saying there were “too many foreigners in our country” and pledging to cut the number of new arrivals by half.

To counter the perception that his tax policies favour the rich, he revealed plans to close profit tax loopholes for France’s biggest companies.

On the most persistent criticisms – around his flashy lifestyle and leadership style – he expressed contrition and said he would do things differently if he had another chance.

Sarkozy didn’t have it all his own way, but the positive reaction from the right yesterday suggested the performance has given his supporters a timely lift.

“One of my characteristics is that I never give up. I was born like that,” he said.

The question is: has Sarkozy left it too late? With the first round of voting on April 22nd, opinion polls suggest he has a lot of ground to make up if he is to catch the socialist candidate, François Hollande. The latest Ifop poll gives Hollande 29 per cent, Sarkozy 26 per cent and National Front leader Marine Le Pen 19 per cent. In a run-off between Hollande and Sarkozy, however, the socialist would win decisively, by 56.5 per cent to 43.5 per cent, Ifop said on Monday.

Most worryingly for the incumbent’s camp, the bounce Sarkozy gained after he formally entered the race in February has been reversed after a bad week for his campaign.

The sequence included a lacklustre speech in Montpellier, the spectacle of the president being jeered and whistled while he tried to campaign in Bayonne, and a muddled response to Hollande’s surprise announcement of a plan for a 75 per cent tax rate on the super-rich. The campaign’s problems were compounded by two media clips that went viral: in one, Sarkozy’s speechwriter, Henri Guaino, lost his cool and yelled at a socialist opponent on television; in the other, Sarkozy’s spokeswoman, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, was unable to say how much a metro ticket cost.

In recent days the Sarkozy camp has changed tack by focusing on immigration and national identity, which suggests it believes the best chance of catching Hollande lies in winning back voters who are leaning towards the National Front.

Sarkozy devoted a major speech to tightening immigration rules. Following claims by Le Pen that all abattoirs in the Paris region slaughtered meat according to halal custom, he promised to introduce a new meat-labelling system. “French people’s biggest preoccupation is halal meat,” the president said.

Some of Sarkozy’s colleagues went further, with French prime minister François Fillon urging Muslims and Jews to consider scrapping their halal and kosher slaughter practices. The “ancestral traditions” of ritual slaughter were justified for hygiene reasons in the past but were now outdated, Fillon said. “We live in a modern society.”

The right turn has revealed internal divisions over strategy within Sarkozy’s camp. “I think the problem of halal meat is in reality a false problem – that there are other real questions that need to be asked,” said French foreign minister Alain Juppé.

Pessimistic noises about Sarkozy’s chances can increasingly be heard from within. “If we lose, I will come under a lot of pressure, I’m aware of that,” Le Figaro quoted Fillon as saying on Monday – a reference to his position as one of the frontrunners to lead the UMP party if Sarkozy leaves the stage.

The president’s press adviser, Franck Louvrier, told financial daily Les Echos that if Sarkozy’s camp did not keep the focus squarely on debating ideas, it was “sure to lose”.

The window for a turnaround is narrowing, but Sarkozy still has time to catch Hollande. With six weeks to go to the first round, polls show the public is not yet fully engaged by the election, and the campaigns have yet to hit top gear. “I never comment [on opinion polls],” Sarkozy said confidently on Tuesday. “In two months, we’ll see who was right and who was wrong.”