Could Sarkozy's personality cost him the election?
PARIS, April 27, 2007 (AFP) - Painted by his enemies as brutal and authoritarian, experts agree that Nicolas Sarkozy's tough-as-nails persona is his Achilles' heel -- but could it cost the right-winger the French presidency?
Despite topping the polls Sarkozy inspires deep animosity on the French left and part of the centre, where his blunt-talking, results-driven approach is seen as an early warning sign of an authoritarian streak.
In the countdown to the May 6 presidential run-off, the Socialist Segolene Royal has zeroed in on the tough-guy reputation that Sarkozy earned as interior minister, contrasting his "brutality" with her claim to a nurturing approach.
For Dominique Reynie of the school of political science in Paris, "the only thing that can can stop Sarkozy from winning is his personality."
"Without the problem over his personality, you could expect him to be elected hands down."
"It's true Sarkozy has a personality problem, including on part of the centre-right, who fear someone like that might have trouble making cool-headed decisions as president," agreed Roland Cayrol, director of the CSA polling firm.
Royal's Socialist Party (PS) has made political hay out of Sarkozy's flaws, publishing a book-length manifesto attacking his character and government style, though it has pledged to call off the personal attacks in round two.
On the Internet, a raft of websites are promoting an "Anyone But Sarkozy" stance, portraying him as a dictator-in-waiting, liable to trample on human rights, the media and the independence of the judiciary.
Sarkozy's campaign posters have been defaced with Hitler moustaches and devil's horns, and the news magazine Marianne doubled its circulation after printing a 12-page dossier on the right-winger, brimming with anonymous insider accounts painting him as dangerous.
Even Sarkozy's inner circle admits that the candidate can be impetuous, but they see his bulldozer personality as an asset in the drive to shake up the world of stodgy French politics.
Speaking on French television Thursday, Sarkozy dismissed the attacks against him as the work of a "Parisian clique", who "live in a world cut off from the country's realities."
Reynie said many ordinary French voters share the same view.
"Imagine that a few famous intellectuals, a few top journalists launch an appeal from a Left Bank cafe to bar the road to Nicolas Sarkozy -- it would probably do him a big favour," said Reynie.
"The French don't like to watch someone be bullied," added Francois Delabrosse, Sarkozy's public relations officer, who says "the attacks against him make him stronger."
But for Sarkozy's camp, the fear is that personality concerns could scare off the seven million people who backed the centrist candidate Francois Bayrou in round one, whose votes will be crucial in the run-off.
"It's true Sarkozy could have trouble winning over votes from the centre-right," said Reynie.
Though he gave no voting instructions, Bayrou attacked Sarkozy this week as an adept at "intimidation and threat" and said he was ready to seek common ground with Royal ahead of round two.
On balance, however, Cayrol said he doubted fears about Sarkozy's personality could tip the election.
"If his rival puts the focus on his personality it can help her in a subliminal way against Sarkozy, but it is not enough to win."
For both Sarkozy and Royal the last chance to iron out their image will be next Wednesday's prime-time television debate, on which millions of undecided votes could hinge.
"Sarkozy needs to win without crushing her, to dominate without looking worrying. He will have to fight his instincts in terms of language and gestures," said Reynie.
But Sarkozy's strongest weapon, Reynie said, was still the lingering doubt among left and centre-left voters about Royal's ability to take on the top job, fuelled by her shaky campaign and policy gaffes.
"If the French have to choose between someone who seems a bit worrying and someone who seems incompetent, they will choose the one who looks competent.
If during Wednesday's debate, "Royal manages to hold her ground for two hours against Nicolas Sarkozy and does her job well -- then the issue of his personality could become decisive."
Subject: French news