Scrappy year for Sarkozy with bigger fights in 2011

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy has trudged from one political fight to another this year, but the biggest battle begins in 2011 as he prepares to seek a second term in power.

Sarkozy has weathered a murky party funding scandal, international criticism for deporting Roma minorities and huge street protests against his landmark retirement reform which he pushed through in November.

With that milestone behind him, but with his approval ratings still stuck around 30 percent, his survival skills face a further test as rivals on left and right decide whether to challenge him for the presidency in May 2012.

Participants at a meeting Sarkozy held with lawmakers last month quoted him as saying: "I am here for two terms, not more. After that it will be 'la dolce vita'" -- the most overt indication yet of his widely expected re-election bid.

In the opposition camp, Sarkozy's challenger from the last election, Segolene Royal, has said she intends to compete for the Socialist party's nomination for the presidency.

Her announcement has shaken up what was seen as a two-horse race between party leader Martine Aubry and the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Dominique Strauss-Khan.

"The boxing match can begin," said the head of Sarkozy's UMP party, Jean-Francois Cope, predicting a scrap between the Socialist hopefuls.

The biggest question on the left is whether Strauss-Kahn will step into the ring or concentrate instead on tackling the economic crisis in his role as secretary general of the IMF.

Opinion polls have indicated either Aubry or Strauss-Kahn would beat Sarkozy soundly in the election and disgruntled right-wingers could also weaken Sarkozy's hand by running against him.

If his old rival, former prime minister Dominique de Villepin and a handful of others run, "his strategy for the first round, which obliges him to win it, and his whole re-election bid could be sunk," said one top UMP leader.

In the meantime, two smaller elections in 2011 could affect Sarkozy's momentum.

Voters will elect leaders of France's 2,000 departments in so-called cantonal elections in March, and senators in September in polls that could see the upper house of parliament shift to the left.

"This will be the last major electoral gauge before the presidential election," said Claudy Lebreton, a Socialist who heads the ADF, a multi-party grouping of departmental leaders.

"The current social discontent favours the left. There could be a desire to punish the president and his policies."

If the left wins a majority in the Senate, currently dominated by Sarkozy's UMP allies, "it will be more difficult to govern," making the last leg of his term "complicated," said the UMP's top elections official Alain Marleix.

Sarkozy reshuffled his government last month, with a leaner, more conservative cabinet taking office after he finally managed to push through a bill to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 despite mass street protests.

That battle was preceded by a summer of scandal and controversy.

First came the so-called Bettencourt affair, in which Sarkozy's then budget minister Eric Woerth was implicated in allegations of illegal party funding linked to the billionaire L'Oreal cosmetics heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

Then in August, Sarkozy's government drew criticism for its law and order crackdown that included rounding up hundreds of members of the minority Roma group from illegal camps and deporting them.

UN observers and EU officials were among those who criticised the policy. Rights groups branded it discriminatory and the European Commission threatened legal action on grounds of freedom of movement.

Sarkozy in October also passed a law banning the Islamic full-face veil in public, which aims to protect women's rights but was criticised by opponents as stigmatising Muslims.

It is due to come into force around April, by which time attention will already be starting to turn to preparations for the presidential election a year later, as time draws short for candidates to launch their campaigns.

The deadline for Socialist candidacies is June. Sarkozy's allies say he will officially announce a bid for the UMP candidacy several months later, in the autumn.

© 2010 AFP

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