France President Nicolas Sarkozy struggles to connect with voters

April 20, 2012
By Kim Willsher, Los Angeles TimesPARIS — Just hours after 40,000 runners gathered at Place de la Concorde, the historic gateway to the French capital, for the start of the Paris Marathon, Nicolas Sarkozy was in the same spot for a rally marking the home stretch of a long reelection campaign.

With supermodel wife Carla Bruni in the front row, the French president — and avid runner — clearly intended to show he was in fighting shape to win the race.

Unfortunately, last weekend’s event evoked an entirely different symbolism: Place de la Concorde is, after all, where King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, lost their heads to the guillotine.

Nobody expects Sarkozy to lose his head in Sunday’s election, except metaphorically, but the imagery was a potent one. If Sarkozy succeeds in overtaking his Socialist rival, Francois Hollande, and finds himself retaining the keys of the Elysee Palace, it will be more than a victory; it will be one of the most astonishing comebacks in French political history.

The latest opinion polls show the two men to be neck and neck for the first round of voting but give Hollande a lead of 10 to 14 percentage points in the expected runoff two weeks later.

A recent poll for the Journal du Dimanche newspaper found that 64% of French disapproved of Sarkozy. That’s higher even than the rating for the unpopularValery Giscard d’Estaingduring his tenure. Giscard was the last president to lose his reelection bid, in 1981.

The truth is that Sarkozy, 57, has never succeeded in shaking off the negative impression he made at the beginning of his five-year term, that the conservative leader was the “president of the rich.” That image plays badly, especially given that a few months after he took office, the global recession hit, leading to belt-tightening measures.

Before the 2007 election, he had hinted that he would go into retreat in the days before the transfer of power to consider how to lead France. Instead, he threw a party at Fouquet’s, one of the most ostentatious restaurants in France. Then he spent a few days vacationing in the Mediterranean on the yacht of a billionaire businessman friend.

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