Struggling Sarkozy to remind French: 'I'm a man of action'

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A year after his victory in the first round of French presidential elections, Nicolas Sarkozy will attempt tonight to refloat an administration which threatens to sink into a morass of internal bickering and popular discontent.

President Sarkozy will use a prime-time television interview to try to recapture the lost image of a reforming man of action, close to the people, which took him to the ElyséePalace in the two-round election last April and May.

After a slight recovery in his poll ratings, M. Sarkozy has floundered in three surveys this week. His approval ratings, varying between 28 and 35 per cent, are the lowest for any year-old presidency since the launch of the Fifth Republic half a century ago.

In other words, M. Sarkozy, who had sold himself to voters as "anti-Chirac" – a man of action and a man of his word – is even less popular than President Jacques Chirac after a first, calamitous, shilly-shallying year in office in 1995-96.

President Sarkozy can point to economic difficulties outside his control, which have made it impossible to deliver his promise to be the "president of purchasing power". He can point to a series of social and economic reforms, some completed, some half-abandoned, some hardly begun. He is expected to promise to push ahead with his reform agenda, despite growing dissent within his own centre-right political camp and reports of repeated quarrels with his prime minister, François Fillon.

Most of all, however, President Sarkozy will try to erase the image of the "bling-bling" president: the man whose film-star lifestyle, divorce and rapid marriage to the pop singer Carla Bruni seemed to absorb most of his attention and energy in three disastrous winter months. Polling officials say that M. Sarkozy's popularity – still in the mid-60s in September – was exploded by a chemical reaction between the falling living standards of ordinary people and his glamorous "personalisation" of the presidency.

President Sarkozy has adopted a quieter tone in recent weeks. That, and the decorous behaviour of Mme Bruni-Sarkozy as first lady, had begun to restore his popularity in the polls. In the past fortnight, however, his government has drifted into a series of public rows between ministers and embarrassing U-turns.

Social reforms and spending cuts, including the scrapping of cheap travel for large families, were announced and abandoned after howls of popular discontent. Ivan Riofol, a hard-right columnist for the Sarkozy-idolising centre-right newspaper Le Figaro, asked mischievously : "Is Sarkozy still a man of the right?"

The large centre-right majority in the National Assembly has splintered between those who want to push ahead with tougher, state-shrinking reforms and those resisting any attempt to close local hospitals, courts, tax offices or even prisons. Centre-right deputies complain that, despite some advances on issues such as pension rights for state employees, most ordinary people have lost sight of the direction and shape of the Sarkozy reform agenda. The public mood has slipped from general support for painful reform to anger that their standard of living has been eroded by inflation and low pay rises.

"The deputies are a bag of nerves," said one senior member of M. Sarkozy's party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire. "We have a two-year clear run without elections. We need the President to give us a road map of where we are going."

The cacophony in government has been amplified by stories of clashes between M. Sarkozy and M. Fillon. The Prime Minister has been marginalised by the activism of M. Sarkozy and his senior staff at the Elysée. In a reversal of the normal French roles, the discreet M. Fillon's popularity has risen as M. Sarkozy's has fallen.

There is renewed speculation that M. Fillon may be sacked after France completes its six-month EU presidency from July.