PARIS — President Nicolas Sarkozy is the underdog, and he knows it. Not a single poll has predicted he will win re-election on Sunday, and leading figures in his government are already lining up new jobs.
In televised interviews, Sarkozy’s on the defensive and paints himself as a victim. At campaign rallies, he’s boxer-like, punching the air, torso soaked with sweat within minutes of taking the podium. He relishes the combat, but after he leaves the stage, his face drains of color, his features lined with fatigue.
The dynamic French leader made his mark on the world arena but let down voters at home, and may well be out of a job within days.
Always the fighter, Sarkozy could confound pollsters and pull off a victory. At a sunny Paris rally in front of the Eiffel Tower on Tuesday, he looked more like the triumphant Sarkozy of the 2007 campaign.
But his challenger in Sunday’s runoff vote, Socialist Francois Hollande, is sounding increasingly confident, and his campaign rallies already feel like victory parties.
Even as the field of challengers has shifted throughout the campaign, Sarkozy has never climbed above second place in the polls.
In a surprising admission for the 57-year-old career politician, Sarkozy has acknowledged that he’s thinking about possible defeat and says he would quit politics if he loses.
“I will fight with all my strength to win your confidence, to protect and lead you and build a strong France, but if that is not your choice I will bow out. That’s the way it is, and I will have had a great life in politics,” Sarkozy said on RMC radio. “I’ll do something else. I don’t know what.”
It’s not over yet. Sarkozy scored 27 percent of the vote in the first round of presidential elections April 22, to Hollande’s 28 percent. Sarkozy may pick up more support from voters who handed far right candidate Marine Le Pen a surprisingly strong third place. And Sarkozy may get a last-minute boost from the final televised debate of the campaign on Wednesday night. Sarkozy has a sharp tongue and strong verbal sparring skills, while the jovial Hollande has been flustered in some recent appearances.
But millions of French voters are determined to prevent Sarkozy from winning a second term, and polls predict Hollande could win by as much as a 12-percent margin.
Sarkozy came into office in 2007 promising dramatic changes to France to better compete with emerging economies like China. After an initial wave of labor reforms, Sarkozy’s presidency was hit with the world financial meltdown, Europe’s debt crisis and France’s worst recession since World War II.
His momentum appeared to fizzle, and he became seen as too friendly with CEOs while France faces near-10 percent unemployment and sluggish economic prospects.
“Without workers, there would be no bosses,” said Christine Delorme, a 57-year-old factory worker marching Tuesday at a leftist May Day rally in Toulouse, one of many union-led marches around France. “I’m here to say no to Sarkozy, the president of the rich. We don’t want that anymore.”
Sarkozy entered this presidential campaign on the back foot, and met obstacle after obstacle.
Reports surfaced that Libya’s Gadhafi regime offered to finance Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign. Critics compared Sarkozy to France’s Nazi occupiers. Former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn suggested his political career was destroyed by Sarkozy’s cronies.
Sarkozy enjoyed a boost after his confident handling of the manhunt for a gunman who killed Jewish schoolchildren and paratroopers in March.
But he spent much of his campaign time denying, dismissing or denouncing criticism lobbed his way. He says the media is lined up against him and regularly accuses his critics of lying.
“What’s troubling in all this is the evasion, it’s the hypocrisy, it’s the lies,” he said, again, Monday.
His campaign team and aides officially refuse to talk about a plan B. But two of his aides have taken new jobs in recent weeks, along with three senior figures in leading government ministries. Some are staying in public service in less political roles, others are taking research or academic jobs.
Satirical puppet show “Les Guignols de l’info” has already made its election prediction: Its episode on Sunday showed first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, an Italian heiress and former supermodel, packing a suitcase for Switzerland, to avoid the 75-percent tax on very high incomes that Hollande has promised to impose.
Printed on Wednesday, May 2, 2012 as: French presidential race has socialist ahead by 12 percent