PARIS Nicolas Sarkozy has vowed to quit politics if he loses the presidency on Sunday, but one of his closest advisers hinted that he is privately leaving the door open to rekindling his political career in opposition.
Sarkozy's hopes of winning a second term were fading two days ahead of the runoff vote, as far-right and centrist leaders deserted him and he failed to land a knockout punch on Socialist rival Francois Hollande in a televised debate.
Hollande's opinion poll lead narrowed to five points in one survey from six-10 points in the past week, suggesting the Socialist's victory would be tighter than expected.
"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," said Alain Minc, a longtime friend and adviser who speaks to the president almost daily.
"The first question for the right is: will Sarkozy leave. If he is only beaten by a small margin, he remains a very credible force. Will he stay in politics or not?"
A likely reshuffle of the right in the aftermath of defeat could allow the ambitious Sarkozy to relaunch himself as the conservatives lick their wounds and weigh up how to deal with a resurgent far-right.
Many analysts believe the UMP party, the dominant force in French politics for a decade, could crack under pressure as factions feud over whether to shun or embrace backers of Marine Le Pen's National Front.
With his electoral prospects battered by the fallout from the economic crisis and widespread dislike of his abrasive personal manner, Sarkozy insisted that if he fails to win a second term, he will bow out of politics.
"I have already said that if the people vote the other way then it would be over," he told Europe 1 radio.
Yet a Socialist defeat of the conservative Gaullists, who have held the presidency for 17 years, could trigger such a deep shake-up of right-wing politics that anything could happen, Minc said.
He hinted at a possible tussle for power between Sarkozy and Jean-Francois Cope, a 47-year-old former budget minister and government spokesman who harbors his own presidential ambitions and currently heads the UMP.
"What happens on the right will depend on what Sarkozy does. Will he quit politics or not? Do you think that if he wants to take over the UMP Cope will resist?" Minc said.
"The second question is, can the right limit the damage in the legislative elections? If it can limit the damage and come back with 250 deputies instead of 320, it will not implode. If it ends up with just 120 deputies, that would be dramatic."
The Socialist Party has built momentum by gradually gaining ground from the UMP in regional, municipal and European Parliament elections since 2004.
In 2011 the UMP lost the Senate to the left for the first time in half a century, and some centrist senators split away to form their own group.
Even if he were to win against the odds on Sunday, Sarkozy would be unlikely to retain the 339 parliament seats out of 577 currently held by UMP and centrist deputies in the parliamentary election next month. If he loses, the conservatives risk far heavier losses.
Le Pen, who scored a surprise 17.8 percent in April's first-round vote, could help amplify the Socialists' victory in the parliamentary election by splitting the right-wing vote.
Already, the fact that nearly one in five voters backs her has raised existential questions for the UMP.
Former President Jacques Chirac formed the Union for a Popular Movement by merging several centre-right parties after Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, caused a political earthquake by muscling into the 2002 presidential runoff against him.
Some on the UMP's right flank are keen to end the quarantine around the National Front, whose voters Sarkozy courted in his 2007 and 2012 election campaigns.
But centrists dream of rebuilding a powerful bloc inside or on the ashes of the UMP and reaching out to Francois Bayrou, who lacks the political weight of the mainstream left and right even though his middle-ground policies make sense to many voters.
Both Le Pen and Bayrou dealt Sarkozy a blow this week by refusing to endorse him for the runoff.
The UMP's best chance for the parliamentary election on June 10 and 17 would be to urge voters not to put all their eggs in one basket, given the Socialists already control the Senate, the Paris town hall and two-thirds of municipalities, Minc said.
(Editing by Paul Taylor and Giles Elgood)