- - Thursday, March 8, 2012

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.

Mr. Hollande, 57, had been the man behind the scenes, considered as a loyal and consensual but dull figure of the Socialist Party, which he led for 11 years.

Since his October victory in the party’s primary elections, Mr. Hollande has become the Socialist’s champion against Mr. Sarkozy.

Labeled as “soft” and “inexperienced” by his conservative opponents, Mr. Hollande has never held a government position.

His campaign platform includes higher taxes, more government spending, and the creation of 60,000 teaching jobs and 150,000 subsidized jobs.

Liar, liar, liar

In the past two weeks, Mr. Sarkozy, regarded as an excellent campaigner, has been traveling around France. He has been hammering home his ideas about referendums, education, jobs and globalization, as well as lashing out against his rival.

“You’re lying. You’re lying morning and night,” Mr. Sarkozy said when referring to Mr. Hollande at a campaign rally in southeastern France.

However, he ran into an angry crowd of voters last week in the southwestern city of Bayonne. Demonstrators threw eggs at him, forcing Mr. Sarkozy to take refuge in a cafe before riot police escorted him away from the scene.

Mr. Sarkozy, whom critics call the “bling-bling president,” has been trying to distance himself from extravagant events early in his presidency.

He celebrated his 2007 election victory at Paris’ elite Fouquet’s restaurant with corporate millionaires and pop stars in a move that some of his supporters criticized as distasteful and vulgar.

“If I had to do it again, … I wouldn’t go back to this restaurant,” he acknowledged last week in a TV interview.

Mr. Hollande called his apology “childish” but “touching.”

The president and his aides are fully aware that Mr. Sarkozy is facing visceral dislike from many voters, including some in his own conservative camp. In recent polls, 63 percent of voters said they prefer Mr. Hollande.

Mr. Sarkozy is also up against the popular far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen; centrists Francois Bayrou and Herve Morin; as well as his old nemesis, Dominique de Villepin.

Each of them could steal votes away from Mr. Sarkozy.

The Sarkozy campaign staff remains optimistic.

“Since he announced his candidacy, his Twitter account went from zero to 100,000 followers. On Facebook, he’s the most popular European politician with more than 550,000 ‘likes,’ ” said Nicolas Princen, head of Mr. Sarkozy’s Web campaign. “And we only started two weeks ago. This is just the first step.”

But the president’s campaign can’t win him back lost popularity, opponents say.

“It’s an American-style campaign. It’s spin. It’s extraordinarily artificial,” said Mr. Hollande’s campaign manager, Pierre Moscovici.

“What Nicolas Sarkozy’s trying to do is to play on the French amnesia, to lie and to twist the truth, … but this president won’t manage to erase his record - the French don’t have amnesia.”