RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
France is holding a presidential election this spring. And the campaign is in full swing, sort of. The only thing missing is one of the candidates, President Nicolas Sarkozy.
As NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, he has yet to announce whether he's actually running for re-election.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: For months, the French have been wondering when Sarkozy will announce that he's running for a second term. Everyone knows the hyperactive president wants another crack at the job, but Sarkozy acts as if campaigning is the farthest thing from his mind.
In a recent television interview, Sarkozy was asked if he was speaking to the French people as president of the republic or as presidential candidate.
PRESIDENT NICOLAS SARKOZY: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: In this time of crisis, I am the head of state and responsible for guiding the French people, said Sarkozy.
To be sure, as a candidate, Sarkozy would never have had an hour-long interview broadcast simultaneously on six television channels. French election law guarantees everyone equal air time. But with the lowest poll numbers of any sitting president in more than half a century, Sarkozy is occupying the media spotlight for as long as possible in the role of crisis manager.
Political analyst Jean-Marc Illouz explains why the French president is so low in the polls.
JEAN-MARC ILLOUZ: Sarkozy showed too much fascination for the rich. That irritated people not only on the left, but even in his own camp. He made promises that he obviously couldn't keep. And then on many occasions he contradicted himself. So in the end, the French perceived the president as being some sort of an unpredictable adolescent.
BEARDSLEY: But Sarkozy has no intention of giving up without a fight. In an interview in Le Figaro magazine this weekend, he proposed a flurry of new initiatives. Sarkozy's platform takes a definite track to the right. He reaffirmed his opposition to gay marriage, and proposed a referendum on whether unemployed people receiving benefits should be allowed to turn down jobs.
CLAUDE WEILL: I think it's a very risky strategy but it's probably the only one.
BEARDSLEY: That's Claude Weill, editor of weekly newsmagazine Le Nouvel Observateur. Weill says with polls showing the French think the socialists will create more jobs, the president has no choice but to make his campaign about values.
WEILL: So he has to go back to basics - family order, security, immigration, work, national identity, and so on.
BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy is new is also trying to attract voters from the far right.
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BEARDSLEY: Marine Le Pen, president of the far right National Front Party, is popular on the campaign trail. Since Le Pen took over from her father last year, she has broadened the party's appeal and made it more respectable. Recent polls show her in third place, right on Sarkozy's heels. The president is said to be haunted by the nightmare scenario of being eliminated by Le Pen in the first round.
The undisputed leader in the polls is moderate Socialist candidate Francois Hollande. For a long time, Hollande's popularity was attributed simply to Sarkozy fatigue. The witty, mild mannered technocrat has long been considered too soft and un-presidential.
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BEARDSLEY: But lately, he has gained in stature and respectability. The turning point, say many, was when he held his own in a televised debate against one of the country's toughest statesmen, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe.
ANGELA MERKEL: (Through Translator) Nicolas Sarkozy, madam...
BEARDSLEY: Meanwhile, not even an endorsement a fellow conservative, German Chancellor Angela Merkel did much to boost Sarkozy's standing. Still, analysts say the president is a scrappy fighter who shouldn't be counted out. He's expected to officially kick off his campaign next week.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.