Sarkozy seeks rebirth as outsider
Paris - President Nicolas Sarkozy, burdened with the worst polls of any modern French leader seeking re-election, may be able to save his bid if he can produce a political miracle in the next few weeks: convincing voters that he is, in fact, the challenger.
It would be an unprecedented upset. Never in the history of the Fifth Republic, founded in 1958, has a sitting president faced an election with such dismal scores against an adversary, Socialist Francois Hollande, with such a deeply entrenched lead.
A couple of polls this week suggest he may just pull it off.
A CSA survey put Hollande only one point ahead of Sarkozy in voting intentions for the April 22 first round - within the margin of error - although the left's champion retains a wide advantage in the May 6 run-off.
Other institutes have the first-round gap wider but all show it narrowing.
When Sarkozy announced his candidacy in a prime time television interview last week, his approval rating of around 30% was well below that of former US President George W Bush in the last troubled year of his presidency.
His opponent had such a wide advance - up to 20 percentage points in the decisive second round - that political writers predicted it would take Hollande's sudden death, or a war between Israel and Iran, for Sarkozy to turn the tide.
"Frankly, I would be amazed to see him catch up," said Jean-Luc Parodi, a polling expert at France's Scienco Po university who has studied every presidential election since 1965.
"We have never seen a sitting president who is quite so weak, with so many negative indicators piled against him."
The list of negatives is long. Unlike in 2007, when Sarkozy grabbed a big chunk of votes from the far-right National Front (FN), polling institute IFOP reckons 40% of votes for FN leader Marine Le Pen will swing to Hollande in the run-off. Just 30% of her backers say they will vote for Sarkozy.
Centrist candidate Francois Bayrou is another source of weakness. Credited with about 12% in the first round, his voters are seen switching 60% to Hollande.
Pollsters say Sarkozy's main weakness has been locked in place for three years - a rejection of his personality and leadership style that stretches across French society.
Part of the issue is personal. Many people never forgave him for airing his marital problems and flaunting a flashy lifestyle at the start of his presidency.
But he also made himself a lightning rod for discontent by micromanaging government early in his term, side-lining his prime minister and cabinet.
Unlike predecessors Francois Mitterrand (1981-1995) and Jacques Chirac (1995-2007), Sarkozy's centre-right UMP party kept a majority in parliament throughout his presidency, making it impossible for him to blame opponents for his problems.
In one telling statistic, Prime Minister Francois Fillon has remained more popular than Sarkozy throughout his five years in office - an anomaly in a system which usually sacrifices the premier to preserve the president.
For or against
"This election is a referendum," said IFOP pollster Jerome Fourquet. "For or against Nicolas Sarkozy."
With a mountain to climb, Sarkozy is trying to turn his deficit into an advantage by projecting himself as an insurgent "man of the people" running against a Parisian establishment that has chosen Hollande as its candidate.
In his first campaign speech last week, he took aim at France's "elites", railing against businessmen, trade union bosses and civil servants he accused of "work(ing) things out amongst themselves" and "always for the worst".
The strategy harkens back to the 1981 election, when Socialist challenger Mitterrand overcame a wide deficit in the polls just two months before the election to unseat Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the centre-right incumbent.
Until January 1981, IFOP polls had shown Giscard d'Estaing leading by 56 percent to 44 percent -- close to Hollande's current lead over Sarkozy in polls on the runoff.
The 1981 analogy is a stretch. Sarkozy has been in government for most of the past two decades.
But as Hollande rides high in the polls, seeking to look and sound presidential, Sarkozy's attempt to change the narrative has worried some left-wing sympathisers.
"I wonder if many people are not burying Nicolas Sarkozy too soon," blogger Philippe Bilger wrote in the online version of left-leaning magazine Marianne. "This would give Sarkozy the beautiful gift of becoming the outsider, the unloved, the walking dead, a president who is no longer president, months before the May 2012 deadline."
Le Pen, a permanent outsider, reacted with fury.
Candidate of the people
"We now see Nicolas Sarkozy's terrifying cynicism," she told TF1 television. "He was the candidate of the system, and now he wants us to believe he is a candidate of the people?"
Pollsters say Sarkozy has a two-week window from his February 15 declaration in which to equalize the power dynamic with Hollande and save his bid.
"Usually we say things are locked up by mid-February, but not this time," said pollster Fourquet. "In the next 10 to 15 days we could still see the dynamic change in one way or the other, with an impact on second round voting intentions."
A week after Sarkozy declared his candidacy, his approval rating has surged by 8% to a still low 38%, according to pollster LH2.
The risk of Le Pen knocking Sarkozy out in the first round, plausible when she was polling up to 20%, is fading as her support stabilises around 16%. Some disappointed Sarkozy fans in her camp are clearly returning to the incumbent.
Also encouraging for Sarkozy is the high proportion of undecided voters - 30-35%, depending on the poll. Hollande's first-round vote also looks softer than the president's, with 27% of the Socialist's backers saying they are not certain of their vote versus 18 for Sarkozy.
"The degree of uncertainty remains unusually high so close to an election," said Bruno Jeanbart at pollster OpinionWay.
If pollsters are so cautious, it is partly due to the memory of France's 2002 election, when they failed to forecast National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen's accession to the final round against Jacques Chirac, fuelling distrust of polls.
"Polls have always been an approximate instrument, and their reliability has only deteriorated since the the last election," said Alain Garrigou, author of a critical book, Drunk on Polls. "People are harassed by telemarketers and have grown deeply suspicious of pollsters and their commercial incentives."
This time, pollsters say the chance of a shock breakthrough by Marine Le Pen is slim because voters, who were reluctant to tell researchers they supported her father in 2002, no longer feel the same stigma.
"If anything, her scores are slightly over-valued," said Fourquet.
As a result, experts are bracing for only one upset - a victory by Sarkozy, which for Sciences Po's Parodi would be just short of a miracle. "It would be some magic trick," he said.