History against Sarkozy as he starts re-election bid

France's most unpopular president of recent times must defy the polls if he is to defeat Socialist rival

A combative Nicolas Sarkozy last night began the greatest uphill battle of any incumbent French leader of recent times.

Confirming his candidature for a second term live on television, President Sarkozy presented himself as an experienced statesman and a "Frenchman like any other" facing an untried and élitist Socialist, the front-runner François Hollande.

"This is the first true election of the 21st century," Mr Sarkozy said. "It is the first in which France will be entering a new world. I'm going to meet the French people and I will have things to tell them and let them choose. Do you want a weak France? Or a strong France that can protect you? I want to go among them like the Frenchman that I am, a Frenchman like any other."

Ten weeks before the first round of voting on 22 April, Mr Sarkozy, 57, is more unpopular than any previous president seeking re-election in the 56 years of the Fifth Republic. Voter anger has been fuelled by the financial crisis but there is also widespread revulsion against the brash personality of Mr Sarkozy and the many unproductive zig-zags of his five years in office.

Although he has introduced some important reforms, Mr Sarkozy is seen as having behaved erratically and selfishly in office, governing for his family and friends. Mr Sarkozy's strategists have concluded that running a populist campaign is his only chance of reeling in the likeable, inoffensive Mr Hollande, 57, and beating off a challenge from the modernised, rejuvenated and feminised far right of Marine Le Pen, 43.

Various other approaches have been test-marketed, without obvious success, in recent weeks as Mr Sarkozy sought to delay his declaration and campaign from within the Élysée Palace. He has proposed a "blood, sweat and tears" economic policy, based on higher VAT, lower payroll taxes and longer working hours.

He has recruited Chancellor Angela Merkel as his de facto "running mate" to persuade voters that any change of leadership would destroy efforts to rescue the euro. Mr Hollande's stubborn popularity finally forced Mr Sarkozy to bring forward his official declaration by three weeks. His strategists fear that a campaign devoted to deficits, debts, spending cuts and taxes would send the nation to sleep and allow Mr Hollande to win by default. They plan instead to borrow tunes from the American electoral songbook, especially George W Bush's successful re-election campaign in 2004. They will try to "paint" Mr Hollande as the effete, inexperienced candidate of an urban, leftist, media élite, oblivious to the real problems of crime, immigration and unemployment.

The President said last night that, if elected, he would short-circuit the political and trade union "élites" and "restore the final word to the French people". Issues such as tougher rules on illegal immigration or the long-term unemployed would be decided by referendums.

Mr Hollande is running at 30 to 28 per cent in the first round opinion polls, Mr Sarkozy at around 24 to 23 per cent and Ms Le Pen at 20 to 18 per cent. Polls suggest that Mr Hollande would defeat Mr Sarkozy in the second round on 6 May by the biggest landslide in the history of the Fifth Republic.

But Mr Sarkozy is a powerful campaigner. As one political commentator said, he is "the kind of bridge player who is brilliant at bidding but hopeless as playing his cards". After five years of muddled playing, Mr Sarkozy is back to his favoured bidding stage.

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