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Has Sarko lost it?

Nicolas Sarkozy is preparing to relaunch his floundering re-election campaign, and is relying on ever more desperate tactics to get back into the Elysée Palace

They think that it is all over – and they may be right. Six weeks before the first round of the French presidential election, a sombre and fractious mood has settled on the campaign of President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Officially, nothing is lost. The candidate-president will give a storming speech to 20,000 flag-waving supporters at Villepinte near Charles de Gaulle airport on Sunday. He will announce startling new proposals (again). He will bash the Socialist front-runner, François Hollande (again). He will, according to his campaign managers, finally recapture the energy and confidence of his triumphant 2007 campaign.

In the four weeks since he officially entered the race, Mr Sarkozy has been floundering. He set out to fight a guerrilla war from within the Elysée Palace. He declared himself to be an outsider, "an ordinary Frenchman among the French". He attacked the media and political "elite" on behalf of a "silent majority".

He tried to play the tune of the Marseillaise on hard-right, hot-button issues from immigration to crime to unlabelled halal meat. He said that Mr Hollande did not "love France" and "lied morning and night". But the opinion polls have remained stubbornly stuck in Mr Hollande's favour. In some polls, the gap has widened.

Conversations with campaigners and voters suggest that the overriding issue in the campaign is not "national identity", as Mr Sarkozy would like. It is not debt, nor immigration, nor the financial crisis. Nor is it Mr Hollande's plan for super-taxes on the super-rich or his promise to renegotiate the EU treaty on fiscal discipline to allow policies to promote growth.

The overriding issues are Mr Sarkozy's "unpresidential" style, his alleged special relationship with the rich, his aggressive character, and his zig-zag record. In other words, Mr Sarkozy himself.

In fact, some ministers and backbenchers of Mr Sarkozy's centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), fear that the game may already be up. "We had to avoid the election becoming a referendum on Sarkozy. That's just what it has become," a UMP back-bencher said. "We expected the Hollande vote to melt down but it hasn't. Hollande has been tougher and craftier than we expected. The Sarkozy campaign has been making blunder after blunder."

Even President Sarkozy seems to fear the worst. He repeated yesterday his threat to quit politics if he loses. Before going on air for a three hour television debate on Tuesday, he was heard to say: "Let's get on with it. It's not a funeral."

Still, the official line from Mr Sarkozy's campaign team remains that with six weeks to go, nothing is lost. Floating voters are, they say, unconvinced by the variable geometry of Mr Hollande's programme. Hard left voters are unexcited by the front-runner's moderate brand of socialism. Hard-right voters are dissatisfied with the kinder, gentler brand of xenophobia of the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.

Voters will soon start to emigrate from both camps, the Sarkozy campaign insists. The President will narrowly top the first round poll on 22 April and gather momentum to defeat Mr Hollande in the second-round run-off on 6 May.

But another scenario is possible: both Mr Hollande and Mr Sarkozy could lose. Centre-right voters could decide that Mr Sarkozy is finished and shift en masse before the first round to the perennial, centrist candidate, François Bayrou. A Sarkozy-Hollande second round would, according to the polls, be a Socialist landslide. A Bayrou-Hollande second round, on the other hand, might be a close-run thing.

As things stand, however, there is no sign of a stampede, or even a drift, from Mr Sarkozy to Mr Bayrou, who is marooned at about 12 per cent in the first round polls. Nor is there any sign of a collapse of the Hollande vote, stable at about 27 to 30 per cent in the first round and 55 to 58 per cent in the second.

Hollande, seriously underestimated by Sarkozy and by some in his own camp, can hardly believe the race has been so untroubled. He warned Socialist back-benchers this week not to appear "too euphoric" in public. He went on to talk, euphorically, about his plans for a "young" government in which half the ministerial jobs would go to women.

The growing despair in the Sarkozy camp may seem exaggerated with six weeks to go. But French elections have a tendency to freeze in mid-March. Radio and television has, by law, to give equal time after 16 March to all official candidates: the large, the medium, the small and the no-hopers.

From a week today, even Nathalie Arthaud, the Trotskyist candidate, credited with 0.5 per cent of the vote in the polls, will get the same airtime as Mr Sarkozy and Mr Hollande. That means less opportunity for the front-runners to reach the great mass of voters who don't read newspapers or go to campaign meetings. Hence the importance of the rally in Villepinte on Sunday.

Worried UMP politicians point to another problem. Mr Sarkozy is trapped between trying to appear more presidential and reverting to his natural, attack-dog style. He is also trapped between campaign advisers who insist he will only rise in the polls by taking votes from Ms Le Pen and those who say that his hard-right rhetoric is infuriating the centre part of his centre-right camp.

Mr Sarkozy's all-action, aggressive, idea-of-the-day, hard-right campaign over the last month was supposed to make Mr Hollande seem inert and complacent. Instead, it has reminded voters of some of the things they least like about him: his violent use of language, his frantic, unpredictable policy-making.

One UMP backbencher said: "We are watching a Greek tragedy where Sarkozy's strengths have become his weaknesses. The qualities which attracted people last time – his energy and his direct, un-political language – now anger people."

In his marathon question and answer session on television on Tuesday, President Sarkozy seemed to be trying on a different persona for different audiences (a habit he claims to detest in Mr Hollande).

He was likeable and human at times, speaking of the break-up of his previous marriage and his new happiness with Carla and baby Giulia. He apologised for some of his unpresidential excesses, like telling a hostile member of the public to "Casse toi, pauvre con" (Bugger off, you silly bastard) in 2008.

At other times, he was at his most infuriating. He insisted that his campaign had not veered to the hard right but then declared that there are "too many foreigners" in France. He gave an entirely fictitious account of how elderly immigrants could claim pensions double those of "retired farmers' wives".

In Villepinte this weekend, President Sarkozy will re-launch his campaign (on itself an admission of failure). Will he persist in beating the hard right drum? Or will he adopt a more measured persona as the best man to carry France through the debt and Euro crises?

Either way, it may already be too late. A senior minister told the investigative newspaper, Le Canard Enchainé this week: "If Sarko doesn't start to make up ground after (the) Villepinte meeting, we are fucked."