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In pre-election France, sombre support for Sarkozy

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy waves to supporters during a visit to Bordeaux on Tuesday.

Regis Duvignau/Reuters

The gloom of the euro-zone debt crisis is casting shadows over France's upcoming presidential election, paralyzing the normally spirited ideological debates and even the reflexive French impulse to protest.

"There is no politics any more," said Nicole Bacharan, a political analyst and historian. "It's all about the economy. All the news, all the statements from the politicians every day, is Economy 101."

President Nicolas Sarkozy, too, is a more muted and sombre figure. Critics who once derided him as a hyperactive showman now grumble about his gravitas.

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While the French left fumbles over what direction to take as the country labours under its debt burden, Mr. Sarkozy has positioned himself as "Captain Courageous" holding things together, said the weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur.

Still, with the election just five months away, Mr. Sarkozy is in the unenviable position of running for a second term while pressing for tax hikes and spending cuts to trim the country's ballooning budget deficit.

He has already warned the French that they will have to spend less and work more. It is hardly a winning campaign theme. And it is a world away from the bouncy catchphrase – work more to earn more – that was the highlight of his pre-crisis platform.

France is the second-biggest economy in the euro zone, after Germany. Its budget deficit, stubbornly high unemployment rate and nearly flat growth have undermined market confidence in the economy.

The dour but popular Prime Minister, François Fillon, announced a new austerity plan of $89-billion in tax hikes and budget cuts a few weeks ago, the second since August, in an attempt to reassure lenders and investors.

Then last week, Standard & Poor's suggested it was considering downgrading France's AAA credit rating. The agency quickly backed off, citing a technical error, but rumours abound in Paris that a third and more draconian round of belt-tightening measures is on the drawing board.

Elsewhere in Europe, the debt crisis has toppled governments in Greece and Italy. Nearly every euro-zone country has announced tough austerity programs, with Britain and Germany considering the biggest cuts since the Second World War. Massive demonstrations have rocked Spain and Portugal.

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But Mr. Sarkozy seems to be holding his own. His poll numbers have crept up in the past two weeks, with some showing his popularity rising to around 37 per cent.

"People are scared," Ms. Bacharan said. "They are scared of the unknown, of the situation, of losing their job, losing the AAA that we didn't even know we had a couple of months ago."

While Mr. Sarkozy may not be liked, he appears reassuringly grim. "People can see he is really fighting to keep us afloat, that he is doing all he can do," she added. "People are not blind."

Nor has the Occupy Wall Street movement taken hold in France the way it has in Canadian, U.S. and British cities.

A small sit-in at La Défense, the financial centre at the edge of Paris, has drawn at most several hundred people. They call themselves "les indignés," or "the outraged." Late Tuesday, to a few protesting cries of "Capitalist dogs" and "We are pacifists," police dismantled their tents.

"The French are by nature outraged, with the highest rate of strike days in the world," said Sylvie Laurent, a professor at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris.

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But they also cannot conceive – "in a Don Quixote way" – that the French economy is near collapse. "The French believe that their social model can resist globalization because it's embedded, or so they hope, in the Republican DNA," Prof. Laurent added. "And as opposed to other nations, they don't think their democracy is sick."

The opposition Socialists also appear to be caught short of alternatives. A proposal to cut elected officials' pay and benefits by 10 per cent, and so save the national budget some €5-million a year, failed spectacularly this week in the National Assembly.

All but two members of Mr. Sarkozy's right-centre UMP party voted against it. The Socialists abstained en masse.

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