PARIS — The candidate — energetic, bold, indefatigable — is sure he will win, aides say, as he pulls 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!”
But the team around him has quietly started to have doubts about victory and is debating the best strategy to try to overcome serious odds.
Sarkozy is in deep trouble and is looking, for now, as if 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 all 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 Barack 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 at the beginning of his term 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, the polls indicate that many French simply 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.