By Sylvie Corbet - The Associated Press
PARIS (AP) - Nicolas Sarkozy launched a personal Twitter account and geared up for a prime-time TV appearance Wednesday, amid expectations that the unpopular French leader will at last announce his re-election bid.
The conservative president, whom many blame for France's economic troubles, has for months trailed Socialist nominee Francois Hollande in the polls. Many pundits say Sarkozy needs to recoup some momentum to stand a chance of winning the two-round vote starting in April.
To most observers, Sarkozy's candidacy has been more a question of "when" than "if," and some suggested his deficit in the polls has accelerated its official start to Wednesday. Earlier his entourage had suggested he would wait until March to join the race.
Socialists sought to play down the expected announcement as a non-event and to paint Sarkozy as a permanent campaigner anyway. Sarkozy's allies spun it their way, saying the president will now be able to break apart Hollande's platform.
Sarkozy's looming candidacy has become one of France's worst-kept political secrets. Media reported his Paris campaign headquarters are ready to go, with about a dozen presidential staffers to move over, and he's widely expected to attend rallies for his UMP party in the Alpine town of Annecy on Thursday, and in the Mediterranean port city of Marseille on Sunday.
On Wednesday, Sarkozy launched a personal Twitter page, and, uncharacteristically humble, thanked all those "who will kindly follow me." Five hours after the first tweet on "NicolasSarkozy," it had reaped 32,000-plus followers. Hollande's "fhollande" already has over 146,000 followers.
Sarkozy's second tweet mentioned how he was planning to go on TF1 television for France's most-watched nightly newscast.
France's two-round presidential ballot in April and May is likely to have an impact throughout the European Union. Sarkozy has been closely involved in the fight to save the euro amid a sovereign debt crisis in the bloc.
Pollsters suggest that Sarkozy's political problems are as much of his own making as France's economic woes. Poll figures by IFOP agency show the biggest slide in his approval rating occurred during his first year - from 67 percent in July 2007 to 41 percent in March 2008 - and months before France was swept up in the fallout of the international financial crisis.
Critics say Sarkozy failed to deliver on promises to improve purchasing power, hiked his own salary, and infused the gilded presidential palace with "bling" that was ill-suited for France's cultural self-image.
On the night of his 2007 election, he celebrated at one of Paris' most glitzy restaurants; before taking office, he jetted off to spend a few days on a yacht owned by a super-rich French industrialist friend.
Later in 2007, Sarkozy divorced his longtime wife and began courting Italian former supermodel Carla Bruni - including trips to Disneyland Paris and the Middle East with reporters in tow. In early 2008, Sarkozy crudely insulted a passer-by at Paris' biggest agricultural fair, an incident caught on videotape that led many to doubt his presidential caliber.
On the issues, Sarkozy has been hurt by the global financial meltdown of 2008, the European debt crisis of the last couple of years, and a general feeling that his electoral slogan "work more to earn more" never did pan out for French pocketbooks.
"This doesn't mean it's all over, but there is a real difficulty for the incumbent president to win back the favor of public opinion," said pollster Frederic Dabi of IFOP. He said polls show that French voters are firming up their decisions even before Sarkozy has entered the race - another sign that bodes badly for him. Polls show Sarkozy also received little to no help from a long TV interview last month shown live on several channels that drew 16 million viewers.
Internationally, Sarkozy has drawn plaudits. While holding France's EU presidency, he took a key mediating role to ease tensions after the brief war between Georgia and Russia. Last year, he committed French soldiers to help support the overthrow of entrenched autocrats in Libya and Ivory Coast. He brought France back into NATO's top echelons in 2009.
Sarkozy, considered pugnacious and impetuous, is bracing for a tough fight. His advisers, speaking on condition of anonymity, say his prospects are "complicated" but that Hollande, admittedly the favorite, can still be brought down.
Jamey Keaten contributed to this report.