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France’s Sarkozy officially declares reelection bid

PARIS - President Nicolas Sarkozy formally announced his candidacy for reelection last night, betting that emphasis on conservative values will rally French voters around him despite a Europe-wide financial crisis and an abrasive personality that have him trailing badly in the polls.

Sarkozy’s televised declaration surprised no one; he has been campaigning de facto for several months. It was nevertheless greeted as the opening salvo in what he promised would be a no-holds-barred campaign against the Socialist candidate, Francois Hollande, his main challenger in a two-round election scheduled for April 22 and May 6.

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The vote hangs mainly on a judgment by France’s 43 million eligible voters as to who can best manage the economic tempest that has battered the country for nearly four years.

Sarkozy said he decided to run for a second five-year term mainly because France needs his steady hand at the helm as it navigates through the crisis.

Aside from the crisis, Sarkozy’s first term has been marked by improved US ties, including a return to NATO’s integrated military command, and close cooperation with NATO forces in Afghanistan and Libya. Hollande has vowed to bring French troops home from Afghanistan immediately if elected - a year earlier than Sarkozy plans - but would not be expected to change France’s basic orientations in Europe or the world.

Against that background, the economic slowdown and how to reverse it are French voters’ main worries - and Sarkozy’s main handicap as he heads into the next three months. As a result of the need to cut back deficits, the French economy under his stewardship has ground to a halt and unemployment has shot up to nearly 10 percent.

As he did last evening, Sarkozy often has portrayed himself as the experienced hand in stormy times, suggesting that it would be adventurous to change leaders now with the euro in danger of spinning apart.

But Hollande, campaigning for almost a year, has built up a clear and steady lead in opinion polls. The latest, a survey released Tuesday by Ifop-Fiducial for Paris Match magazine, showed Hollande with 30 percent and Sarkozy with 25 percent in the first round and Hollande with 57.5 percent to Sarkozy’s 42.5 percent in the runoff.

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