Analysis: Trailing in the polls, French President Sarkozy is struggling to connect with voters the way he did on his way to victory five years ago. Can he tap into his core attributes, or will they wind up driving him to defeat?
PARIS - "The first time is about seducing; you get elected the second time if you can just be seen as the least incompetent." Throughout 2011, French President Nicolas Sarkozy listened to the counsel of his closest advisors about how to lead a presidential campaign when you're the incumbent.
He heard them say that a second campaign is never going to be "magical," that one must lean on presidential attributes as long as possible without getting trapped in the presidential bubble.
Sarkozy's struggle in the polls, his lack of popularity and his own intuition made him choose a totally different approach: on Wednesday night, he officially announced he was running for reelection, getting into campaign mode to make people forget the incumbent president and try to revive the image of the successful candidate he was five years ago. But does he still have what it takes?
Good health has always been one of Sarkozy's assets, and he pays attention to his physical form with a strict regimen of a high-protein diet and exercise at least three times a week.
But his hallow cheeks, his frequent bursts of anger and the visible tension in the past weeks prove that he's kicking off his presidential campaign tired. He's talked about his "difficult nights because the baby doesn't sleep much," in reference to his infant daughter Giulia, perhaps trying to hide the exhausted president behind the new father.
Keeping the faith
Winning or losing, Sarkozy never stops believing in himself. On February 16, 2007, just a few months before his victory in the presidential election he told his friends: "I'm starting to feel good about this campaign."
For the past 5 years, lawmakers from his ruling UMP party have heard him spin reality. Since the 2007 presidential campaign, Sarkozy's center-right party has lost all other elections. "I look at the situation calmly. Between the first round of the regional elections – in March 2010 – and the first round of the local elections – in March 2011 – the right gained 4.5 points," he said following the latter election.
On April 14, 2011, he told lawmakers "I'm starting to feel good about the situation…" But this time, their faith in him isn't as strong.
Contempt for his opponents
Those close to Sarkozy are adamant that he has an objective assessment of the power struggle, the situation in the country and himself. But his time as a lawyer pushes him to claim he's the best while constantly bringing down his opponent. It's behavior that at times makes him seem oblivious to reality.
For a long time, the French President didn't believe in the Socialist candidate's chances. "The only things that destabilizes Nicolas Sarkozy is intellectual prestige," says former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. "And for him, Francois Hollande doesn't have that."
One elected official says of Sarkozy that he's "never seen him doubt himself." Another adds: "If he were an oncologist, his patients would definitely believe they'd be cured."
Values are what ultimately gave him the victory in 2007. He put forth the right a set of values, which had been dormant for years: work, responsibility, authority.
Today, he would like that scenario to repeat itself. "Politics die without ideas!" he says. "I'm not lacking ideas, I have too many!"
In his interview this past weekend with Le Figaro, the headline was: "My Values for France," but his ideas don't feel very new. "Work, responsibility, authority." That's the 2007 speech all over again, except now he must kick off his campaign leaning more to the right than he did five years ago.
Nicolas Sarkozy during campaign rallies in 2007 was like a rock star. But he's since become the President of the Republic, and his bi-weekly meetings with the French people are often ill-prepared. Sarkozy wants to be back home each night, and so he rarely spends more than a few hours in each region, while his predecessors could stay two or three days. Local newspapers often underline the speedy nature of his trips.
The man with no past
Sarkozy is a man who combines two particularities: he is hypermnesic, which means he's someone who, as Brice Hortefeux, a former Interior Minister and close friend of Sarkozy, once said "doesn't forget anything and doesn't neglect anything." But he is also amnesiac, and likes to write history on a clean slate. Yasmina Reza, a French writer who followed him during his 2007 campaign, once heard him say: "I'm a stranger to my past. The only thing I'm interested in is this afternoon, tomorrow."
Often his advisors regret only being able to talk to him about the coming week. "He's hyperactive, but in the long-term he has trouble settling down," says one of them. "The real question in this election is whether the French people will be able to forget that he was the President for the past five years."
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Photo - Guillaume Paumier