|France's President, Nicolas Sarkozy arrives with his wife, Carla Bruni Sarkozy, at French TV station TF1 headquarters prior to a TV interview in Boulogne-Billancourt, outside Paris, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012. Nicolas Sarkozy launched a personal Twitter account and geared up for a prime-time TV appearance Wednesday, amid expectations that the unpopular French leader will at last announce his re-election bid. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)|
Against tough odds, Sarkozy is seeking second term
PARIS—Nicolas Sarkozy threw himself Wednesday into what may be the toughest fight of his political career: Unpopular for years and running a feeble economy, the divisive French president announced he's running for a second term.
The man who improved French relations with the United States, rallied European leaders to ward off financial meltdown and kicked off international airstrikes in Libya is widely disliked back at home. Polls suggest his Socialist challenger will be the one attending world summits come May.
But Sarkozy is not one to give up easily. He pledged Wednesday to get the jobless back in the workforce and new reforms to ensure a "strong France" and that the French "way of life" can survive the 21st century.
"Yes, I am a candidate," he said on national TV network TF1 on Wednesday night, ending weeks of largely artificial suspense over whether he would run.
Pollsters say the president will face an uphill battle to convince voters that they should elect him again. He has only two months to change minds: The first round of the two-round vote is April 22.
For months polls have shown Sarkozy well behind Socialist Francois Hollande, who has threatened to roll back Sarkozy's reforms and is campaigning against "the world of finance." Sarkozy also has lost ground to far-right candidate Marine Le Pen of the resurgent, anti-immigrant National Front party.
A man usually more brash than humble, Sarkozy admitted Wednesday that he hasn't accomplished all he set out to when he was elected in 2007 on a wave of hope for change that would rekindle France's pride and enhance its global influence.
Five years later, France is struggling to emerge from its worst recession since World War II and the French are disillusioned. Jobless rates are nearly 10 percent, Europe's economic future is uncertain and huge government debt cost the country its prized AAA credit rating with Standard & Poor's.
In his announcement Wednesday, Sarkozy blamed French voters' troubles in part on three years of financial woes and said he would focus on getting more people working. "France cannot pretend that the crisis doesn't exist," Sarkozy said. "We have to continue to make changes."
He only outlined one solid proposal, however: a referendum on unemployment benefits and training the unemployed.
Now that he's officially a candidate, his challengers quickly lit into him. His tenure has been a "fiasco," Hollande said at a huge, boisterous rally in northern France. Le Pen criticized his "false modesty" and said he couldn't make the French forget "the serious failures" of his term.
France's two-round presidential ballot in April and May is likely to have an impact throughout the European Union. Sarkozy has been closely involved in the fight to save the euro amid a sovereign debt crisis in the bloc that has affected markets worldwide.
Earlier Wednesday, Sarkozy launched a personal Twitter account -- with the handle NicolasSarkozy -- and thanked all those "who will kindly follow me." Tens of thousands of followers joined within hours.
Sarkozy's candidacy had become one of France's worst-kept political secrets. Within minutes of his announcement, his new campaign team sent an invitation to his first rally, in the Alpine town of Annecy on Thursday.
Pollsters suggest that Sarkozy's political problems are as much of his own making as France's economic woes. Critics say Sarkozy failed to deliver on promises to improve purchasing power, hiked his own salary, and infused the gilded presidential palace with "bling" that was ill-suited for France's cultural self-image.
On the night of his 2007 election, he celebrated at one of Paris' most glitzy restaurants; before taking office, he jetted off to spend a few days on a yacht owned by a super-rich French industrialist friend.
Later in 2007, Sarkozy divorced his longtime wife and began courting Italian former supermodel Carla Bruni -- including trips to Disneyland Paris and the Middle East with reporters in tow. In early 2008, Sarkozy crudely insulted a passer-by at Paris' biggest agricultural fair, an incident caught on videotape that led many to doubt his presidential caliber.
Internationally, Sarkozy has drawn plaudits. While holding France's EU presidency, he took a key mediating role to ease tensions after the brief war between Georgia and Russia. Last year, he committed French soldiers to help support the overthrow of entrenched autocrats in Libya and Ivory Coast. He brought France back into NATO's top echelons in 2009.
Polls indicate that Hollande and Sarkozy could finish first and second in the first-round vote and then go head-to-head May 6 in the runoff. One poll last week put Hollande a staggering 20 points ahead of Sarkozy in a theoretical second round.
Sarkozy beat Hollande's former longtime partner, Socialist Segolene Royal, in the 2007 elections. Now, amid worldwide frustration at financial markets and big money, many French voters now appear ready to hand the presidency of their nuclear-armed nation to the left for the first time since the 1980s.
Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.