Sarkozy stays out of sight on eve of polls

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President Nicolas Sarkozy is in hiding. As the first, great electoral test of his presidency looms tomorrow and next weekend, the all-action "omnipresident" has become unusually elusive.

In the one interview that he has given in recent days, the President achieved the unSarkozy-like feat of saying nothing very much and launching no great initiatives or controversies.

In a barbed comment yesterday, the head of the President's centre-right party, Patrick Devedjian, hailed this exploit as a shift to a quieter, more "classical style" and the "end of the baroque period" of M. Sarkozy's presidency.

M. Sarkozy's popularity has fallen so far and so fast – to 37 per cent in one poll this week – that candidates in his party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), have begged him to stay away from their campaigns. Some UMP candidates have even removed the party label from their leaflets and internet sites.

Everything points to a series of disastrous results for the centre-right in the 36,000 city, town and village elections tomorrow and next weekend. There are parallel elections, also over two rounds, in the 96 départements, or counties.

The main opposition party, the Parti Socialiste, remains bruised and divided by M. Sarkozy's victory in the presidential election last April and May.

They are expected, nonetheless, to score a string of victories in the next eight days, holding on to the great municipal prizes of Paris and Lyons and probably taking Strasbourg, Caen, Reims and many smaller towns from the right.

After M. Sarkozy's presidential triumph last year, the centre-right had hoped to recapture the Paris town hall from its Socialist Mayor, Bertrand Delanoë.

Opinion polls indicate that M. Delanoë will cruise to an easy victory tomorrow and next Sunday.

A few days ago, it seemed that the left might also capture the cities of Marseilles and Toulouse, which have long been run by centre-right mayors.

Such an outcome would be calamitous for President Sarkozy and his party.

The latest local polls suggest that the centre-right may just hang on to to the two great cities in the south. Much will depend on the turnout of left-wing voters and how much President Sarkozy's unpopularity provokes a migration of poorer, conservative voters back to the far-right, which was routed by the centre-right last spring.

Pollsters attribute the President's unpopularity to a destructive collision between, on the one hand, his celebrity lifestyle and unpresidential behaviour, and on the other hand, a steady erosion of the standard of living of ordinary French people.

Significantly, the popularity of his Prime Minister, François Fillon, has soared. His approval rate is about 60 per cent, which, set against the approval rate for M. Sarkozy, is the biggest-ever gap between a premier and president.

President Sarkozy let it be known this week that he would not sack M. Fillon if the local election results are poor. The gap in their approval ratings has created deep tension between the two men but it was hardly likely that an unpopular president could sack a popular prime minister.