Sarkozy swaggers in face of imminent defeat

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But recent polls have put Mr Hollande up to 15 points ahead of Mr Sarkozy in the second round of voting as French voters warm to his message of a renegotiated European Union fiscal pact, to loosen the strictures on spending; a 75 per cent tax on those earning more than €1 million; and posts for 60,000 new teachers.

Now the president has just two weeks to convince France to change its mind.

In five years Mr Sarkozy has gone from being the brash outsider, who promised rupture with past and reform to bring France a bright new future, to a man who has presided over widespread disillusion and, more recently, a spate of high-profile defections.

If he succeeds in turning his political fortunes around in the next fortnight, it would be the most breathtaking reversal in modern French political history.

Yet the man himself appears to harbour no self-doubt. The most disliked president in modern French history strutted onto a giant stage in his ruling party’s political heartland of the Cote d’Azur late on Friday night like a man convinced of victory.

Brimming with self-assurance, he had jetted south from Paris to rouse more than 10,000 of his most loyal supporters, many wearing red-white-and-blue wigs, who chanted the Marseillaise in the city’s cavernous Palais Nikaia.

At this rally, as at many previous election events, Mr Sarkozy was his own warm-up act, appearing on giant screens flanking the stage in footage of the highlights of his presidency, facing down terrorists at home and abroad and talking at key summits with David Cameron, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel.

Mr Sarkozy is anxious to play up his status as a global statesman, in contrast to Hollande’s lack of international experience, and the films served to give the impression that “Super Sarko” had solved the Middle East crisis, crushed Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi and steered Europe out of bankruptcy all on his own.

“This is where the real work begins,” he told the Tricolor-waving crowd in the capital of the Alpes-Maritimes department which returned the nation’s highest level of votes for him – 47 per cent – five years ago.

He could not put a foot wrong. As he got into his stride – his voice ranging theatrically from a whisper to a bellow – he promised to halve immigration, throw up trade barriers to emerging economies, and give “a lesson in electioneering” to his socialist rival.

As the cameras panned to Mr Sarkozy’s wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy in the front row, the president was forced to pause as the audience chanted in unison the name of the supermodel turned singer: “Carla! Carla!”

Mr Sarkozy said recently that he would “rather become a monk than return to politics” if he lost the election; but few entirely believe him. In 2005 he promised to go on a retreat if he won power; instead he celebrated at one of Paris’s most expensive restaurants, then took a holiday on the yacht of a billionaire business friend, sparking his disastrous reputation as president of the rich.

“Go all of you Sunday to cast your ballots, because each ballot will build our victory, because we need everybody,” Mr Sarkozy told the crowd.

“The forces arrayed against us are so great that only the French people can say ‘Here is the choice we are making, the choice for a strong France’.”

He paused to acknowledge the applause, before marching off the stage. His next public appearance will be today, when he will cast his vote in the chic Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine where he was for many years mayor. French election law dictates that all campaigning stops at midnight on the Friday before the vote, which is always on a Sunday.

As the crowd filed out into the evening sunshine, there was a feeling of pugnacious denial.

Laurence Gaubert, a 40-year-old party loyalist from Cannes, said: “The pollsters are liars, the media are liars and Hollande is a liar. If he wins, we may as well all just emigrate to a country with better prospects, like North Korea.”

Single mother and undecided voter Marie-Louise Macet brought her two teenage daughters along to the rally as an “educational experience”.

Hers was hardly a ringing endorsement: “I don’t really like the man at all, and I certainly wouldn’t want him round for dinner, but he does make you feel he’s ultimately going to make you better off and the streets safer than Mr Hollande will,” she said.

“Right now, I don’t think France needs a nice compassionate leader, it just needs a strong one, even an arrogant one, so for that reason he’s probably got my vote.”

Other drew on the deep seam of disappointment Mr Sarkozy has engendered, saying they felt “let down” by him, that he had not lived up to the promises he made five years ago and had allowed himself to become too unpopular during his time in office.

Thierry Pradeau, 49, a business manager from Grasse, said: “He has put his supporters in an impossible position, and if I vote for him it will be an exercise in damage limitation.

“He has not delivered on cutting unemployment and inflation, there has been a constant whiff of corruption around his government particularly with party funding, and the killings in Toulouse make a lot of people feel he has not really got a grip on security.

“I do not feel he is the man who should be in charge for the next five years, but like a lot of people, I’ll vote for him because I like Hollande even less.”

Pensioner Luc Renard, 68, from Cannes, added: “I voted for the Gaullist party all my working life, but now I am retired, I feel Mr Sarkozy does not care about pensioners. I feel my savings are at risk, and inflation is forcing me to make economies I do not feel I should be making at my age.

“The over-65 vote is enormous in France, and he risks losing a lot of support there, votes that will go straight to Francois Hollande. Most of all I feel very disappointed that he took his eye off the ball and let that happen.

“He has left a lot of people very deflated at the fact he is expected to lose, and I never thought I’d hear myself saying this about a right-wing candidate, but frankly he deserves to.”

On the other side of France, Mr Hollande was trying hard not to sound too triumphant at own last rally before Sunday’s voting, but as French journalists remarked: “In his case, the confidence seems justified”.

Mr Hollande turned poetic in Charleville-Mezieres in the Champagne-Ardennes region of northeastern France, a conservative stronghold.

“I’ve come to this region that placed its trust in Mr Sarkozy,” he said. “He even came to the Ardennes to make a speech about workers, jobs, industry. Everyone can see how great the disappointment is.”

His voice cracking from weeks of stump rhetoric, Mr Hollande exhorted the banner-waving crowd: “Don’t lower your guard, be vigilant. Make sure that we turn up in numbers on Sunday. Convince the undecided.” He concluded: “You want an alternative? It’s now. You want change? It’s straight away. you want victory? It’s the 22nd April.”

As the latest opinion polls showed Mr Hollande on course for victory in two weeks’ time, a separate survey showed 64 per cent of French people disapprove of Mr Sarkozy – the highest figure in the 54-year history of the Fifth Republic.

The next two weeks will be a contest for the votes of those who supported the three other main candidates expected to be eliminated today.

Recent polls show that almost all the supporters of Jean Luc Melenchon, the far-Left leader of the Front Gauche who wants a 100 per cent tax on earnings above £300,000 are likely to Mr Hollande.

Almost half of those supporting Marine Le Pen of the Front National, who has pledged to reduce legal immigration to 10,000 people a year and pull out of the euro, say they would vote for Mr Sarkozy. Meanwhile supporters of François Bayrou, the centerist and eternal also-ran of French elections, would divide equally between the two.

At Mr Sarkozy’s campaign headquarters yesterday, past the heavyweight security guards, there was no sign of panic or sense of impending defeat among the staff bustling back and forth.

A chic Frenchwoman at reception said the collection of Sarko memorabilia, including red, white or blue balloons, rubber bracelets and T-shirts had been “selling very well”.

“Surprisingly well,” she added without irony.

In : World News

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