Sarkozy faces uphill battle in French election

With President Nicolas Sarkozy's star fading, support for the far-right National Front soared in the first round of voting.
CBS News

(CBS News) PARIS - If you follow politics, this may sound very familiar: a presidential election in which the economy is the number one issue.

But the election isn't in the U.S. -- it's in France. And the polls say the incumbent is in trouble. CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips is in Paris.

Like a boxer who knows he's losing the fight, Nicolas Sarkozy has come out swinging in these last days of this campaign.

He had angry exchanges with his opponent, Francois Hollande, during this week's debate. Hollande, Sarkozy said, is a dangerous man for threatening to reverse the budget-cutting measures France and Europe have adopted. Hollande said he can jump start the economy by spending more and taxing the rich.

But Sarkozy isn't really running against Hollande. He's running against himself.

He had promised the French a new deal: that if they worked harder and longer and demanded less from state welfare programs, they'd all be better off. The American model, it was called.

A lot of people, like Ruben Elmaleh, who runs a bar-restaurant on the outskirts of Paris, took him at his word.

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"For the last five years, we have worked very hard and we didn't see the money," he said.

"Show me the money?" asked Phillips.

"Yeah, show me the money."

Yet style, as much as substance, may be Sarkozy's problem. A taste for the good life and a marriage to the glamorous Carla Bruni seem at odds with a country being told to be less self-indulgent.

"That he was seen to be living too well? Phillips asked Elmaleh.

"Yeah, like a star, he was living like a star," he said.

With Sarkozy's star fading, support for the far-right National Front soared in the first round of voting. How that vote splits in the run-off on Sunday is the key.

This has become the most coveted voting bloc in France. If the far-right National Front vote swings for Nicolas Sarkozy, he stands a chance. If it stays home, he doesn't.

And Francois Hollande would become only the second Socialist president of France in more than 50 years -- a man committed to free-spending policies that are making the markets and governments in Europe and the U.S. extremely nervous.

  • Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips is CBS News senior foreign correspondent, based in London.