Sarkozy Struggles to Advance Past Hollande as French Vote Nears

Since announcing his candidacy on Feb. 15, President Nicolas Sarkozy has accused his main opponent of lying and of not loving France; announced new proposals on company taxes, immigration and labor, and threatened to withdraw from some European accords.

His rankings in the polls have barely budged.

With 42 days before the first round of the elections, Sarkozy has trailed Socialist candidate Francois Hollande in every poll the past four months, risking making him the eighth euro-area leader to be ousted since 2010. An Ifop poll for Paris Match magazine released over the weekend said he’d lose to Hollande by 55 percent to 45 percent in the presidential elections, a similar margin to every other poll.

“Sarkozy is having a hard time holding on to the right while attracting the center,” said Laurent Dubois, a professor at Institute of Political Studies in Paris. “He doesn’t have either the record or the popular personality to run on. He’s reduced to attacking Hollande, which doesn’t make for a very attractive campaign that brings people together.”

In his latest attempt to revive his campaign, Sarkozy yesterday held a rally attended by about 50,000 of his flag- waving supporters where he threatened to withdraw France from the Schengen open-borders treaty if wasn’t reworked to better control illegal immigration and called for a “Buy European Act” modeled on similar U.S. laws for some public contracts.

“I don’t see why if America, the most free-market country on earth, has one, why Europe can’t,” he said at the election rally near Paris. He also called for a European version of the U.S.’s “Small Business Act,” which helps small and mid-sized companies win public contracts.

‘President of the Rich’

Faced with an unemployment rate of almost 10 percent, Sarkozy has found it difficult to show that his first term was a success even though he’s pointed out that France has fared better than countries such as the U.K. and Spain.

“The dislike that many French have for him is set in stone,” said Francois Miquet-Marty, at pollster Viavoice.

Miquet-Marty said the dislike of Sarkozy is linked to what are seen as un-kept promises on purchasing power and jobs, and his image of being the “president for the rich” because of tax cuts he enacted and his friendship with many business leaders.

France’s unemployment rate was 9.8 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, up from a low of 7.5 percent at the start of 2008. While joblessness has risen more in Britain and Spain, Sarkozy built his 2007 election on promises to create jobs, Miquet-Marty said.

Not Appreciated

In a March 6 television interview, Sarkozy said he regretted celebrating his 2007 election with a party at an expensive Paris restaurant and for holidaying on a yacht owned by businessman Vincent Bollore, saying at the time he was disoriented because of his troubled second marriage. Sarkozy divorced in late 2007 and in 2008 married singer Carla Bruni, with whom he now has a daughter.

Sarkozy, 57, is paying the price for making himself the subject during his victorious 2007 campaign, where he made his energy and pugnacious temperament a key part of his attraction, Miquet-Marty said.

“He successfully built his 2007 campaign around his image but his temperament is no longer appreciated by the French,” he said. “He’s trying to overcome that by talking about values and making policy proposals but it’s not easy. In a presidential election you elect a person.”

Unpopular

Seventy-four percent of the French say their opinion of Sarkozy is set in stone, and of those, 73 percent have a negative opinion, according to a March 6 poll for Liberation by Viavoice. Only 35 percent have a positive image of Sarkozy, a number that’s barely budged in a year, the poll said, and 67 percent don’t want him to win re-election.

The poll involved 1,001 people questioned by telephone, with a margin of error between 1.4 percent and 3.1 percent.

The first round of the elections will be held on April 22. Under France’s election system, the top two vote-getters face off in the decisive second round.

According to the Ifop poll, Sarkozy would gather 27 percent of the votes and Hollande 29 percent in a first round, with the president gaining 1.5 percentage points from a week earlier while the Socialist contender held steady. The poll involved 922 people and has a margin of error of 3 percent.

A Sarkozy loss would follow those by leaders in Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Italy, Spain, Slovenia and Slovakia, and make him the second French president after Valery Giscard D’Estaing to lose a re-election bid.

Not Giving Up

Sarkozy’s supporters say they haven’t given up. “Sarkozy can and will probably be re-elected,” Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Europe 1 radio yesterday. “We’re realizing the total lack of credibility of the Socialist candidate.”

At the rally yesterday, Sarkozy claimed credit for sheltering France from the euro-region’s crisis. He said France’s strong role had help save Greece.

“For the past five years I’ve put everything into protecting the French people from crises,” he said at the rally yesterday attended by actor Gerard Depardieu and former First lady Bernadette Chirac, who spoke in his support.

Sarkozy said France will suspend its involvement in the Schengen system of European open borders if changes are not made within the next 12 months to control illegal immigration. France will introduce its own legislation, he said.

“The main concerns of the French have to do with jobs, but instead all Sarkozy has been offering are wedge issues such as immigration,” Dubois said.

Hollande Margin

Hollande is a lawmaker from central France who has never held a Cabinet post. He’s called for an immediate withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan and for a 75 percent tax band on income over 1 million euros ($1.3 million). He also wants to renegotiate the European fiscal treaty.

“We expect Francois Hollande to be the next host in the Elysee palace given his considerable winning margin in the polls,” said a March 9 note to investors by Citigroup Global Markets senior economist Guillaume Menuet. “Historically, voting intentions crystallize in March, leaving Sarkozy a window of just a few weeks for an unlikely political comeback.”

The recent easing of the European debt crisis has also worked against Sarkozy, Menuet said, with the irony that Sarkozy was one of the leaders most outspoken in pushing for greater involvement of the European Central Bank.

“The reduction in market stress has lowered his chances of re-election in our view,” Menuet wrote.

To contact the reporter on this story: Gregory Viscusi in Paris at gviscusi@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Vidya Root at vroot@bloomberg.net

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