Sarkozy promises ‘strong France’ as he loses endearment of voters

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PARIS On the walls of No. 18, Rue de la Convention, a huge billboard bearing President Nicolas Sarkozy’s profile notes his new slogan: “A Strong France.”

Inside campaign headquarters, about 30 staff members work to spread the word. Most are young, but they have long been a part of the Sarkozy success story - which many in France think is about to come to an end.

“At the moment, it seems that a majority of the French want to get rid of a president who has fallen from grace,” said Dominique Moisi, senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations, a Paris think tank.

“The handicap for Nicolas Sarkozy is big. It’s not his record. It’s him. In the end, he is not loved. The French don’t like him; they find him nervous, excessive. They need reassurance, and he doesn’t reassure them.”

In May 2007, Mr. Sarkozy won the presidential election against Socialist candidate Segolene Royal and took office as one of the most popular presidents since World War II hero Charles de Gaulle. Then, he embodied action and change. In February 2008, he further burnished his image when he married Italian-born supermodel Carla Bruni.

Now the equation has changed as Mr. Sarkozy seeks a second term.

Not only does Mr. Sarkozy, 57, suffer from a serious image problem, but he also needs to convince voters that he has been successful in handling the economic and debt crisis, even though it has led to unpopular austerity measures and a loss of France’s AAA bond rating in January.

“Today we have the leadership on ideas. The current political debates revolve around Nicolas Sarkozy’s ideas, not around those stemming from the opposition,” said Franck Louvrier, communication counselor and one of the president’s closest aides.

” ‘A strong France’ is the vision of a country that can protect the French, whereas the only idea [his opponents] have is ‘change.’ But change is just a political act, it’s not a vision for the future.”

Strength versus change

“A Strong France” versus “Change Is Now” are slogans in the race that pits Mr. Sarkozy against his most serious rival to date, Socialist candidate Francois Hollande.

Less than two months remain before the first round of the elections April 22. A runoff will be held May 6 if no candidate receives a majority of the vote in the first round.

Mr. Hollande, who entered the campaign in October, is ahead in opinion polls and is expected to edge Mr. Sarkozy in the first round with 29 percent of the vote to the president’s 25.5 percent.

In a head-to-head second-round contest, Mr. Hollande would trounce Mr. Sarkozy, 57 percent to 43 percent, according to the latest Ipsos poll.

Mr. Sarkozy announced his candidacy Feb. 15, a few weeks earlier than planned, in order to catch up with Mr. Hollande.

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