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Sarkozy’s reelection in jeopardy

Gap with main challenger seems to be widening

Franck Prevel/Getty Images

Polling suggests President Nicolas Sarkozy (above, speaking in Paris) would lose to Socialist candidate Francois Hollande (below) if the two face off in the second round of voting May 6.

PARIS - The candidate - energetic, bold, indefatigable - is confident, sure he will win, pulling energy from his big crowds.

“Take your destiny in your hands!’’ Nicolas Sarkozy shouted to the 100,000 or so who came to the Place de la Concorde to see him Sunday. “People of France! Don’t have fear! They will not win if you decide that you will win!’’

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But the team around him has quietly started to have doubts about victory and is debating the best strategy to overcome serious odds.

Sarkozy is in deep trouble and is looking, for now, as though he could be the first one-term French president since 1981. He appears to be running neck-and-neck with his main challenger, the Socialist candidate Francois Hollande, in the first round of voting Sunday, when 10 candidates are competing. But the opinion polls show Sarkozy losing to Hollande in a face-off two weeks later.

His possible defeat carries implications that would radiate far beyond Paris. Sarkozy has had contentious but valuable relationships with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, a fellow conservative, on European and eurozone issues; with the British on defense issues, including the Libyan war; and with President Obama on issues involving Iran and Israel, NATO and Russia.

A victory by even a centrist Socialist like Hollande, who has advocated higher taxes on the rich and a greater emphasis on growth over austerity, would create immediate strains with Germany and rattle financial markets that are already nervous about the size of France’s debt. Hollande has also said that he wants to pull French troops out of Afghanistan sooner than NATO has agreed to do. Still, he says that his first visit abroad would be to Berlin, no matter how chilly the reception.

Sarkozy faces an electoral dilemma that is inherently tactical. Presuming he gets through to the runoff May 6, does he continue to run to the right, or move to the center? And will it make enough of a difference anyway in a nation that admires what he promised five years ago - a “rupture’’ with the past - but not what he has delivered, which is a stagnant economy and unemployment at its highest level in 12 years?

Even more troubling for Sarkozy, polls indicate that many French do not like him - his negative ratings are high - and that many of them will vote in the second round for the bland Hollande or simply stay home rather than see Sarkozy back in the Elysee Palace for another five years.

“Sarkozy is facing a real problem,’’ said Christian Malard, a senior analyst for French television. “Historically, when we look at the polls this close to the first round, no one has ever bridged such a big gap and won. He’s had some good ideas, and people say we need to reform this country in a world of ferocious competition. But Sarkozy is paying the price of his behavior, his manner - always in a rush and trying to solve every problem - and the French didn’t like that.’’

Catherine Nay, his biographer, calls Sarkozy a terrible communicator. “He never capitalizes on his successes, he changes the subject every day, people forget the next day what he did the day before, he fogs the brain,’’ she said. “He’s the victim of too fiery a temperament.’’

Sarkozy is running hard to place first Sunday to give him momentum going into the second round. And if he trails Hollande on Sunday, he will remember that Jacques Chirac trailed his Socialist rival in the first round in 1995 and won anyway.

But to win May 6, Sarkozy would need the votes of many who Sunday will choose either the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, or the centrist, Francois Bayrou. Some observers suggest that Sarkozy might need as much as two-thirds of the votes from each of those two very different camps to win. That will require a difficult balancing act, they say.

“The trend is not good for Sarkozy; the gap is widening,’’ said Pierre Haski, the editor of the online newspaper Rue89. “He’s facing a real dilemma, because he needs to talk to two completely different constituencies, Bayrou and Le Pen.’’

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