Too little, too late? Sarkozy goes on the attack as he tries to make up lost ground

French President claims 'We are the silent majority' in an energetic and hard-right campaign

Nancy

Nicolas Sarkozy, the noisiest politician in Europe, is campaigning, noisily, in praise of silence.

The in-your-face "omni-president", who has dominated French and European air-waves for five years, is stumping through France claiming to be part of a "silent majority".

The President, who was born in Paris and has been a professional politician in greater Paris since the age of 28, tells his cheering supporters to reject "the little world of Paris". He urges them to "rebel" in favour of the status quo.

"Nous, la majorité silencieuse (we, the silent majority)," Mr Sarkozy tells a greying, prosperous, flag-waving crowd of 6,000 in Nancy. "We will prove them wrong, the pollsters, the observers, the commentators, the media, the lesson-givers."

Less than three weeks from the first round of the French presidential elections, President Sarkozy lets his audience into a secret. He is not a politician at all. He is a human being. He is certainly not, he suggests, one of those insincere, machine politicians, like, for instance, his principal rival, the Socialist candidate, François Hollande.

"Look, I have no prepared speech," he says. "And my team doesn't like that at all. This is the real me. I believe in emotion. I am not a robot. I am not an automaton. I don't act out a role. I am a human being who passionately loves his country. I have a carnal conception of my love for France."

Mr Sarkozy's unprepared speech sounds – word for word – like other unprepared speeches that he has given to recent rallies. He praises himself and the French people for resisting "demagoguery and anti-Islamic generalisation" after the Toulouse murders. He then goes on to push the anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant buttons.

Immigration will be cut in half. There will be no separate bathing hours for Muslim women in municipal swimming pools. There will be no separate, halal menus for Islamic children in state schools. Actually, the President says there will be "no separate menus in schools" – which implies that Muslim and Jewish children should eat pork.

Scripted or unscripted, it is a brilliant performance: by turns witty, bumptious, sonorous, passionate, chatty. If anything, President Sarkozy is a better stump orator than he was in 2007. Then he always seemed to be angry. In one speech, he managed to be angry with Canada.

This time around, the President, mixes anger with wit and warmth. The message is, however, broadly the same. I am an outsider. I am a man who gets things done. I don't care for ideology: I care for what works.

Is the message working? A little, but maybe not enough. A month ago many people in Mr Sarkozy's centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) thought that the campaign was lost. The unexciting Socialist candidate, Mr Hollande, was comfortably ahead in the first round polls and predicted to win by a landslide in the two-candidate, second round on 6 May.

Since then, Mr Sarkozy's energetic, hard-right campaign, the Toulouse killings and the rise of the hard-left candidate,Jean-Luc Mélenchon, have re-shuffled the cards for the first round. But not yet for the second round.

Three opinion polls yesterday put Mr Sarkozy and Mr Hollande neck and neck in the first round on 22 April. Two polls put Mr Sarkozy in the lead; another gave Mr Hollande a narrow advantage. All three polls suggested that the Socialist challenger had maintained, or even extended, his second round lead.

For all his talk of a "sincere", unscripted campaign, President Sarkozy's posture, or imposture – the man of the people against the elite – is carefully calculated. In almost every big election since 1981, the skittish French electorate has turned against the incumbent.

The President's record is patchy. His behaviour in office has angered some centre-right voters. He has failed to deliver the growth and prosperity that he promised. So Mr Sarkozy has chosen to go on the attack. He is a pragmatic rebel who happens to live in the Elysée Palace. François Hollande is the limp favourite of the Parisian media and political power structure

This is, however, the same song as in 2007. Even the best performer might find it hard to win the Eurovision Song Contest with the same song two years running.

Chancellor warming to 'Merkollande'

Forget "Merkozy" and get ready for "Merkollande". The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, appears to be weighing up the growing prospect of the Socialist candidate, François Hollande, becoming the next French president.

According to Germany's Der Spiegel magazine, Ms Merkel has performed a major French presidential election policy U-turn and made a series of "unofficial contacts" with the Hollande camp after noting that his popularity had recently outstripped that of President Nicolas Sarkozy in the polls.

"There have only been message exchanges between advisers, but it's certainly better to prepare for change than to rule out such a possibility," the magazine quoted Jean-Marc Ayrault, the French Socialist parliamentary leader, as saying.

Not only did the Chancellor initially pledge her support for Mr Sarkozy, she also agreed to campaign alongside him. The driving force behind the Merkel-Sarkozy alliance had been their commitment to upholding the European fiscal pact which obliges the 25 EU member states which have signed up to the agreement to enforce greater budget discipline.

Tony Paterson

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