The candidate — energetic, bold, indefatigable — is sure he will win, aides say, as he pulls energy from his big crowds.
“Take your destiny in your hands!” Nicolas Sarkozy shouted to the 100,000 or so who came to the Place de la Concorde to see him last Sunday. “People of France! Don’t have fear! They will not win if you decide that you will win!”
But the team around him has quietly started to have doubts about victory, and is debating the best strategy to try to overcome serious odds.
Mr. Sarkozy is in deep trouble and is looking, for now, as if he could be the first one-term French president since 1981. He appears to be running neck and neck with his main challenger, the Socialist candidate François Hollande, in the first round of voting on Sunday, when 10 candidates are competing. But all the opinion polls show Mr. Sarkozy losing to Mr. Hollande in a face-off two weeks later.
His possible defeat carries implications that would radiate far beyond Paris. Mr. Sarkozy has had contentious but valuable relationships with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, a fellow conservative, on European and euro zone issues; with the British on defense issues, including the Libyan war; and with President Obama on issues involving Iran and Israel, NATO and Russia.
A victory by even a centrist Socialist like Mr. Hollande, who has advocated higher taxes on the rich and a greater emphasis on growth over austerity, would create immediate strains with Germany and rattle financial markets that are already nervous about the size of France’s debt. Mr. Hollande has also said that he wants to pull French troops out of Afghanistan sooner than NATO has agreed to do. Still, he says that his first visit abroad would be to Berlin, no matter how chilly the reception.
Mr. Sarkozy faces an electoral dilemma that is inherently tactical. Presuming he gets through to the runoff on May 6, does he continue to run to the right, or move to the center? And will it make enough of a difference anyway in a nation that admires what he promised at the beginning of his term five years ago — a “rupture” with the past — but not what he has delivered, which is a stagnant economy and unemployment at its highest level in 12 years?
Even more troubling for Mr. Sarkozy, the polls indicate that many French simply do not like him — his negative ratings are high — and that many of them will vote in the second round for the bland Mr. Hollande or simply stay home rather than see Mr. Sarkozy back in the Élysée Palace for another five years.
“Sarkozy is facing a real problem,” said Christian Malard, a senior analyst for French television. “Historically, when we look at the polls this close to the first round, no one has ever bridged such a big gap and won. He’s had some good ideas, and people say we need to reform this country in a world of ferocious competition. But Sarkozy is paying the price of his behavior, his manner — always in a rush and trying to solve every problem — and the French didn’t like that.”
Catherine Nay, Mr. Sarkozy’s biographer, calls the president a terrible communicator. “He never capitalizes on his successes, he changes the subject every day, people forget the next day what he did the day before, he fogs the brain,” she said. “He’s the victim of too fiery a temperament.”
Mr. Sarkozy is running hard to place first on Sunday to give him momentum going into the second round. And even if he trails Mr. Hollande on Sunday, he will remember that Jacques Chirac trailed his Socialist rival in the first round in 1995 and won anyway.
But to win on May 6, Mr. Sarkozy would need the votes of many who on Sunday will choose either the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, or the centrist, François Bayrou. Some experts suggest that Mr. Sarkozy may need as much as two-thirds of the voters from each of those two very different camps to win. That will require a difficult balancing act, the experts say.
“The trend is not good for Sarkozy, the gap is widening,” said Pierre Haski, the editor of the online newspaper Rue89. “He’s facing a real dilemma, because he needs to talk to two completely different constituencies, Bayrou and Le Pen.”
Given the animosity for Mr. Sarkozy felt by numerous Le Pen voters, Mr. Haski thinks that the president will move to the center, “where he has most to gain.” Mr. Sarkozy will continue to try to frighten centrist voters with Mr. Hollande’s vague economic plans, which feature higher taxes and more state spending, Mr. Haski said, while “a lot of Le Pen voters will at the end say, ‘We don’t want to see the neo-commies in the Élysée.’ ”
Threats from the left
Mr. Hollande faces a threat from his left — from the rabble-rousing former Socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who is challenging Ms. Le Pen for third place in the polls. But his followers are likely to hold their noses and vote for Mr. Hollande, simply to defeat the right.
Working to his advantage is the fact that the public has tired of the grim business of budget cutting and is yearning for a different approach. Mr. Hollande is providing that, in the form of higher taxes on the rich, more state spending and an assault on inequality, themes that could conceivably reverberate beyond the Continent in subsequent years, particularly if they succeed.
Growing inequality has become a hot-button topic across Europe, and if Mr. Hollande were to win, the move to impose higher taxes on the wealthy could get a boost elsewhere, even in the United States, where President Obama has already promoted the so-called Buffett Rule to impose a minimum tax rate on incomes in excess of $1 million a year.
A potential victory by Mr. Hollande is already making the markets nervous about the willingness of France, and perhaps other European countries, to stick with pledges of austerity. That is true even though he promises to balance France’s budget by 2017. That, in itself, would limit his policy choices, says a prominent economist, Nicolas Baverez. But the same is true for Mr. Sarkozy, he says.
“No matter who is elected, France will have a major confrontation with the markets,” Mr. Baverez said. “There is very low growth and a huge public debt, and a refusal of the French political class to deal with the necessary cuts in public spending.” But with Mr. Hollande, he said, the test from the markets would come sooner.
"Historically, when we look at the polls this close to the first round, no one has ever bridged such a big gap and won."
Patrick Buisson is the éminence grise of the Sarkozy entourage, credited with fashioning the victorious Sarkozy campaign of 2007. A deeply religious man who began as a journalist on a rightist publication, Mr. Buisson argues that Mr. Sarkozy is wrongly criticized for flashy habits and rich friends, is a victim of the global economic crisis and will emerge victorious.
“Sarkozy doesn’t love money, he loves success, which is very different,” Mr. Buisson said in an interview.
The election is really about values and character, Mr. Buisson said, and Mr. Sarkozy will continue to defend the fundamental values of France and to challenge the competence of Mr. Hollande.
“Politics is the art of managing symbols, because they speak to the collective imagination,” Mr. Buisson said. Mr. Sarkozy won in 2007, he said, because he succeeded in combining the traditional electorate of the right with workers, traditionally on the left, worried about crime and immigration. The 2007 campaign was built “around the value of work and the rehabilitation of the value of work,” which was also a riposte to those who live off the state and thus off the work of others, he said.
Today, Mr. Sarkozy’s campaign is built around the “values of national identity,” of a protective state standing against the threats of globalization and uncontrolled immigration, Mr. Buisson said. “This time, the central theme has been to be the candidate of borders,” he added, “of the border that protects.” So Mr. Sarkozy has called for a Europe with tighter frontiers, fewer immigrants, more regulation and more protectionism for French industry.
All of this is meant to be a contrast to the notion of a Socialist Party of bureaucrats and professors who live off the state and favor multiculturalism, rather than reinforcing basic French values like assimilation and secularism, Mr. Buisson said. It is Mr. Sarkozy, not Mr. Hollande, who is best able to solve “the three crises that we have suffered — financial crisis, economic crisis and monetary crisis,” which “together have aggravated all the problems of French society,” he said.
Mr. Buisson has urged Mr. Sarkozy not to change strategy, and according to Le Figaro, the daily newspaper most aligned with the president, Mr. Sarkozy has so far decided to stay the course. “When Sarkozy does Sarko, he climbs; when he does Chirac, he drops,” a Sarkozy aide, who was not named, told Le Figaro.
To win, Mr. Buisson said, Mr. Sarkozy needs to turn around 1 million voters from an electorate of 44 million. “People vote differently in the second round,” he said. “The polls are never predictive, but just a snapshot in time.”
The second round is about the momentum won in the first, Mr. Buisson insisted, adding, “From the moment he has the momentum, he can reverse the balance of forces.”