One week into his re-election campaign, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has already courted plenty of controversy.
His "La France Forte" or "A strong France" campaign posters have been the subject of parody, with variations on the original of Sarkozy pictured with a tranquil sea behind him modified to include a capsized cruise ship — a reference to the sunken Costa Concordia off the coast of Italy — among the more notable.
Earlier this week his team appeared to have asked Twitter to close down four accounts linked to the spoof posters.
A member of Sarkozy’s team told French newspaper Le Monde that he had asked Twitter to remove the accounts, arguing that they could confusion as they used both Sarkozy’s first and last name.
The "#sarkocensure" hashtag has become one of the most popular in France, with many ridiculing Sarkozy who has in the past called for more regulation of the “Wild West” Internet.
For his visit to a Halal abattoir on Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras, some tweeters suggested he might dress up as Francois Hollande, his socialist challenger, to please the crowds.
An Ifop poll published on Sunday showed the French President trailing behind his socialist challenger, although the gap has narrowed. Twenty nine percent of those polled said they would vote for Hollande, while 27 would support Sarkozy. Right-wing Front National candidate Marine Le Pen was in third place with 17.5 percent of the vote.
But Sarkozy, undeterred, will have taken heart from economic data last week which showed the French economy managed to grow in the final quarter of 2011 — if only by 0.2 percent — contrary to that of many of its euro zone peers.
The euro zone as a whole saw a contraction of 0.3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011.
Focus on the Economy
Economists fear France will not be able to stay in the lead and that the figures should not offer too much hope that the economy might be more resilient to the periphery’s troubles than feared.
“Prospects for French exports are marred by fairly weak competitiveness and a reliance on trade within the euro-zone, while the previous consumer recovery has already stalled. And with the banking sector still highly exposed to Italy and the peripheral economies, we see France losing its lead before long,” analysts at Capital Economics said in a note.
They point out that with half of its exports going to other euro zone countries, and 40 percent of those to the southern and peripheral economies, the prospect of further sharp falls in demand there bodes very ill for French exporters.
“As the peripheral debt crisis worsens, French GDP is likely to fall sharply, particularly if Italy is dragged back in,” they said.
In an interview with CNBC on Wednesday, Jean Francois Copé, Secretary General of Sarkozy's center-right UMP party said France had to focus its attention on reducing the budget deficit and public spending.
“We have to change the growth model which was totally relying on public spending," Copé said.
He added that his party would scrap France's 35-hour working week.
Sarkozy will argue that his close cooperation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in fighting the euro zone debt crisis makes him the right man to navigate France through troubled waters.
At his first big rally in Marseille on Monday he sought to project the image of a strong and experienced leader who had helped France to escape what has befallen those in Greece.
The first round of the elections takes place on April 22. Until then, he has many a skeptical French voter to convince.