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Election ahead, France's Sarkozy faces crunch time
Now or never for Nicolas: Unpopular French president faces tough re-election bid
By The Associated Press

PARIS (AP) ' It's make or break time for Nicolas Sarkozy if he wants another term as the French president.

If polls can be believed, the brash, risk-taking and unabashedly America-friendly French leader who took center stage in the Libya war and the fight to save the euro needs something akin to a miracle to get re-elected.

With just 68 days left until the first round of voting in the presidential ballot, Sarkozy has stayed uncharacteristically quiet about whether he will run. But French media say he will announce his candidacy any day ' possibly on national TV Wednesday ' and are already reporting the names of those on his campaign team.

Despite his successes in international affairs, Sarkozy has been unpopular at home for most of his first term and has for months trailed Socialist candidate Francois Hollande in opinion polls. No presidential candidate in France's postwar history has come back from being so far behind so late in the campaign.

"If we look at past elections, it's off to a very, very, very bad start," pollster Emmanuel Riviere of TNS Sofres agency said of Sarkozy's campaign. "Never has a president been in such a situation."

Sarkozy's presidency got off to a rough start in 2007, including public gaffes, tax policies that appeared to favor his rich friends and his jet-setting courtship of supermodel Carla Bruni, all of which damaged his image in the eyes of the French. Since then, France's worst recession since World War II and a still-weak economy have made it hard to rebound.

Polls indicate that Hollande and Sarkozy could finish first and second in the first-round vote on April 22 and then go head-to-head on May 6 for the runoff. One poll last week put Hollande a staggering 20 points ahead of Sarkozy in a theoretical second round.

The conservative Sarkozy's chances are also hurt by the campaign successes of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who has stirred up anti-Islam sentiment in the country with Europe's largest Muslim population.

This is all assuming Sarkozy throws his hat in the ring. Most pundits see it as inevitable but admit a tactical delay allows him to hold on to his commander-in-chief mantle as long as possible ' before morphing into campaigner-in-chief.

"He needs to create a surprise when he announces his candidacy, and it's going to be one of his last cartridges," Riviere said.

Pollsters at the IFOP agency noted recently that Sarkozy is now in his 49th straight month below a 50-percent approval rating: More than four of his five years in office.

Political analyst Dominique Moisi believes Sarkozy's political fate is already sealed, saying the damage his image sustained in the first two years of his presidency left too indelible a mark in voters' minds.

"He did things that unbalanced the French, he trivialized the presidency, desecrated it," he said. "As things stand today, I think Francois Hollande will be the next president of France."


Eds: Sylvie Corbet and Jeff Schaeffer in Paris contributed to this report.

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