PARIS French President Nicolas Sarkozy's offer to hold regular policy referendums if re-elected is a bold attempt to reach out to grassroots voters resentful over market-driven economic gloom, but it may not swing opinion polls back in his favour.
Announcing his re-election bid late on Wednesday, Sarkozy pledged to "give the public its voice back" via plebiscites, starting with one on his proposal to make the unemployed undergo retraining and actively seek jobs.
"Each time there is a blockage, I will make the French people decide," the conservative Sarkozy said, as he declared his candidacy for the April-May presidential election.
The idea is a departure in a country that has held only one - lost - national referendum in the last decade, and a volte-face for a leader who has so far shunned the idea of putting controversial policy plans to a public vote.
Sarkozy hopes it will please those who feel powerless to improve their lot since the global financial crisis, and now the euro zone debt crisis, have destroyed economic growth, driven up unemployment and left households feeling hard up.
It could also soothe criticism over an impulsive leadership style that has seen Sarkozy respond to events by rushing through policy measures with little planning or prior debate.
But opponents will seize on his referendum pledge as a sign of weakness as Sarkozy launches a nine-week re-election campaign with a 68 percent disapproval rating and badly lagging Socialist challenger Francois Hollande in opinion polls.
"It really smacks of desperation, especially because there are many people in his party who oppose the idea," said political analyst Jacques Reland of the Global Policy Institute.
"It will appeal to some people, especially far-right voters and the old and frightened. But it's a dangerous game because it will upset socially liberal centre-right voters and could prompt them to vote for Hollande in the second round."
France held a flurry of referendums between the end of World War Two and the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1958, and under President Charles de Gaulle, who stepped down in 1969 after losing a plebiscite on regional reform.
Only five have been held since then, the most recent being a May 2005 vote that rejected a treaty creating a European Union constitution. Sarkozy said in his 2007 election campaign that he would not put it to a second public vote. Instead a redrafted version known as the Lisbon Treaty was approved in parliament.
Election poll graphic: r.reuters.com/was36s
A 2000 referendum reduced the presidential term to five years from seven, and a 1992 plebiscite barely approved Europe's Maastricht Treaty. A 2003 referendum in Corsica narrowly rejected greater autonomy for the Mediterranean island.
None of France's big socio-economic policy changes - such as the left's introduction of a 35-hour week in 2000, or Sarkozy's raising of the minimum retirement age by two years to 62 -- has been put to a public vote.
"Why didn't he hold a referendum on pensions? There were eight million people in the street ... We should have had that debate in 2007," left-wing Socialist Arnaud Montebourg told France 24 television.
Envisaged under the constitution for matters affecting the national interest, referendums are neither compulsory nor legally binding.
Political scientists see them as a way to respond to a disengagement from politics, particularly among the young.
"He's trying to reconnect with people who are disenchanted with what's being going on. He's promising this as the carrot at the end if you vote for him. It's a little bit cheeky," said Christopher Bickerton, an associate professor of international relations at Sciences Po university in Paris.
"Some people will say great, bring it on. But I don't think it would be a reason to change your voting behavior," he said. "If you weren't going to vote Sarkozy, you're not going to change because he's promising referendums."
The fact that the 2012 campaign centers on Sarkozy's record, and that he had asked to be judged on results, could make it hard to convince voters, Bickerton said.
The government said this week it may also hold a referendum to insert a so-called golden rule on balancing the budget into the constitution, as agreed in a euro zone fiscal discipline treaty agreed by 25 EU leaders last month.
Sarkozy's sudden embrace of plebiscitary democracy comes after the left gained control of the Senate upper house last year. meaning he stands little chance of getting constitutional changes approved in parliament.
"Sarkozy is the sworn enemy of referendums," far-right leader Marine Le Pen told France Info radio. "How can he suddenly present himself as a defender of the referendum?"
(Editing by Paul Taylor)