PARIS (Reuters) - Nicolas Sarkozy’s vigor at the podium, his man-of-the-people way of speaking and his impassioned promises of a break with a stagnant past in France swept him to the presidency in 2007.
Yet his popularity ratings slid so fast and so far, as many found him brash and too chummy with the rich once in power, that his frenetic re-election campaign and his promise to govern differently have fallen flat.
The last opinion polls before Sunday’s runoff vote put the conservative four to eight points behind Francois Hollande, a mild-mannered but popular Socialist who looked set to become France’s first left-wing leader in 17 years.
The deeply ambitious son of a Hungarian immigrant, Sarkozy set his mind to becoming president from an early age, despite his lack of the elite upbringing of his political peers. Asked once whether he thought of the presidency when he looked in the shaving mirror, he replied: “Not just when I‘m shaving.”
His taste for expensive watches, garish polo shirts, flashy yachts and pop music set the teetotal jogger apart from past presidents, with their more refined preferences for fine cheese, wine, literature and countryside retreats.
His over-familiarity jarred with the public, from the day he told a man in a crowd to “get lost, jerk” to the time he flaunted his private life at a news conference, saying with a grin, that his liaison with supermodel Carla Bruni was “serious”.
With surveys rating him the least popular president to seek a second term - two-thirds of voters give him a thumbs-down - Sarkozy has sounded unusually contrite, admitting the job had not been easy and he had made mistakes.
“Nothing can prepare you for being president. It’s so difficult,” he told a group of regional newspapers after Hollande beat him to first place by 1.5 percentage points in the April 22 first-round vote among 10 candidates.
“Perhaps at the start of my term I acted too much like a minister in being too hyperactive, too present. The president must appear more like a solemn and distant symbol, while also remaining accessible. It’s a difficult balance.”
On the world stage Sarkozy won plaudits for his firefighting skills and his swift response to the euro zone debt crisis and to the popular uprising in Libya. But at home, many found him arrogant, showy and vulgar.
Mocked for his platform heels and fidgety manner, Sarkozy tried to act more aloof later in his term, but under the stress of his battle with Hollande he slid back into sometimes vitriolic exchanges with political opponents and reporters.
The aggressive manner that drew dispirited blue-collar workers to him five years ago weighed against this time. After his 2007 pledge to slash unemployment fizzled, few were ready to believe his promises that he could revive the sickly economy.
“People are voting more to punish Sarkozy than out of approval for Hollande. It’s more about personality than ideas,” said transport executive Franck Vallee, 40, as he voted for the incumbent in the Loire valley village of Ecommoy.
Even Sarkozy’s inner circle of advisors admitted late last week it would take a miracle for him to win.
Many were disappointed when he came across as edgy and aggressive in a May 2 debate against Hollande, repeatedly accusing him of lying and calling him “a little slanderer”.
“Sarkozy is a genuine guy. Who says what he thinks. He’s good-natured but also hot-tempered,” Alain Minc, one of the president’s oldest friends and advisors, told Reuters this week.
Sarkozy’s biggest failure in the eyes of many voters is that rather than ending the scourge of unemployment, he oversaw a surge in jobless claims to their highest level in 12 years.
His main reforms - raising the retirement age to 62 from 60, loosening the 35-hour work week, giving universities more autonomy and tweaking the tax system to encourage overtime and home ownership - earned him little credit with voters feeling economic hardship.
On the campaign trail Sarkozy pledged to reform labor markets and the tax system to bolster industry and job creation, decrease the influx of immigrants and hold policy referendums.
But voters still focus on how he celebrated his 2007 election win with millionaire buddies at a swank Paris nightspot and once tried to secure a public sector job for his son.
Even his own side never quite recovered from the queasiness of watching the public break-up of Sarkozy’s second marriage within weeks of his election, and his whirlwind courtship of Bruni, whom he married in early 2008.
A lawyer by training, Sarkozy built his political base as mayor of the upmarket Paris suburb of Neuilly and gained national attention in 1993 by striding into a nursery school to rescue infants taken hostage by a man dubbed “Human Bomb”.
He became right-hand man to Prime Minister Edouard Balladur in 1993-95, serving as budget minister and spokesman for his unsuccessful presidential campaign and turning his back on his former mentor Jacques Chirac. When Chirac won in 1995, Sarkozy spent seven years in the political wilderness.
He returned as a tough interior minister in 2002-04 and 2005-07, serving as finance minister in 2004-05, when he won control of the governing UMP party against Chirac’s wishes.
When the financial crisis erupted in 2008, Sarkozy adopted an anti-capitalist tone, vowing to punish speculators and advocating a strong state role in the economy. He led Europe’s response and helped create the G20 summits of major economies.
He improved ties with Washington, returning French forces to NATO’s military command for the first time since 1966, negotiated a ceasefire in a brief 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, and led Western military action in Libya last year.
Sarkozy vowed to quit politics for good if he lost Sunday’s election, but Minc hinted that he was privately leaving the door open to rekindling his political career in opposition.
“If he is defeated but scores as much as 48 to 48.5 percent, with governments everywhere being thrown out by the economic crisis, that would be no disgrace. We’ll see what he decides to do,” Minc said.
Additional reporting by Gus Trompiz; Editing by Paul Taylor