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Sarkozy confession to press sets rumour mill spinning

Off-the-record comments by French President Nicolas Sarkozy about his potential defeat in forthcoming presidential elections, which were made public by the French press, have left observers pondering the true purpose of the remarks.


French President Nicolas Sarkozy has expressed the possibility of his defeat in the country’s forthcoming elections in an off-the-record conversation he had with journalists and which some of France’s leading news outlets decided to make public.

According to reports on Tuesday by AFP news agency, Le Monde and Liberation newspapers, and other media organisations, Sarkozy told a small gathering of reporters that “for the first time in my life I am faced with the possibility that my career is coming to an end.

“Today, I have to ask myself that question", the French president, who is trailing Socialist candidate Francois Hollande in opinion polls and struggling with low approval ratings, was quoted as saying.

The exchange, which occurred during the president’s visit to French Guyana on Sunday, immediately became a subject of intense speculation in France. Were Sarkozy’s words a from-the-heart confession or a calculated move to garner sympathy?

Left-wing daily Liberation said that at least on two occasions Sarkozy warned that the conversation was off the record, insisting at one point that if his words were printed the same kind of exchange “would never happen again”.

During the three-hour-long talk, Sarkozy reserved some disparaging words for his own ruling UMP party, saying he would prefer a religious cloister to active participation in party life if he lost the election, the reports said.

Sarkozy has not made his candidacy for the April 22 poll official, but his leaked conversation also helped confirm his intention to run for a second term. “The [2012] campaign will be very different from 2007,” Sarkozy reportedly warned.

PR strategy or blunder?

In opinion pieces published on Wednesday, newspapers across France did not dwell on the reporters' questionable decision to share the president's off-the-record comments; the dailies were confident, it seems, that Sarkozy meant for his comments to be published.

The question for them was not whether journalists had broken an agreement with the president or ignored one of the established norms of their trade, but rather whether Sarkozy’s words amounted to a careless blunder or a crafty public relations strategy.

“We should not be lured by the bait that the head of state has used,” wrote editorialist Philippe Waucampt of the Républicain lorrain, a local daily from eastern France. “While members of the government attack the Socialist candidate [Hollande], the head of state is trying to divert attention to himself with a clever disinformation strategy.”

“Real depression or a torturous PR move?” mused Hervé Cannet in La Nouvelle Republique, before declaring “The future UMP candidate would like to find in this very ‘human’ moment an opportunity to create a new image. Or find a new strategy to rebound [in opinion polls].”

According to Jean-Luc Mano, a French communications consultant, Sarkozy’s comment amounted to a colossal blunder. “There is a rule among political candidates that says you must never mention the possibility of defeat. It applies even to candidates whose support peaks at three percent,” Mano told FRANCE 24. “This means Sarkozy really harbours serious doubts.”

However, Freddie Winckler of the marketing firm J. Walter Thompson said the comments were not a slip-up. “I think what we are seeing here is Nicolas Sarkozy wanting to show the man behind the machine… the man who is getting ready to run into battle.”

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