PARIS Center-right French President Nicolas Sarkozy is busily laying the groundwork for a re-election bid in 2012 despite uncertainty over whether his strongest Socialist rival will enter the race.
As he polishes his image as a global policy leader with the high-profile G20 presidency, France's "action man" has been tramping around the countryside, trying to lift rock-bottom approval ratings, and laying traps for the left.
He sought to rebuild public support during a prime-time television appearance on Thursday where he sat down for 2-1/2 hours with nine carefully vetted "ordinary people."
Taking a concerned tone, he sympathized with their grievances about low incomes, crime and care of the elderly, and pledged measures to cut youth crime and boost employment, including a 500 million euro injection for job training.
"Crime and unemployment are the two absolute priorities," he said, dominating most of the debate.
Meanwhile, First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy has stepped up cheerleading for her husband, declaring last week she has foresworn the socialist leanings of her Italian youth and would never vote for the left in France.
Damaged by an unpopular pension reform, mishandling of the revolt in Tunisia and embarrassments over ministers' holidays paid for by foreign leaders, Sarkozy needs to work hard to woo back voters whose support for him plunged to just 24 percent in a recent TNS Sofres poll.
The April 2012 election looms at a crucial time as France and the euro zone battle to trim swollen budget deficits and win back investor confidence.
International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a gifted, if somewhat aloof economist, is keeping France guessing over whether he will seek the Socialist Party nomination.
Pending his decision, party leader Martine Aubry, architect of the 35-hour week, has not disclosed her own intentions.
This complicates Sarkozy's calculations in one way, since he does not know whom he will face. But it also gives him a headstart to work on reconquering voters uncumbered by sparring from potential campaign rivals.
"Sarkozy has a few months ahead of him where he can show he is capable of managing things for the French people," said political analyst Guy Groux at France's Sciences Po university. "Compared to him, the Socialists lack a credible program or visible proposals."
"BAD PRESIDENT, GOOD CANDIDATE"
Viewed by some as flashy and overactive, Sarkozy must fight for the middle ground while stopping conservatives and working-class voters defecting to the far-right National Front's telegenic new leader, Marine Le Pen.
The Socialists, out of power since 1995, are determined not to lose another election, and polls show either Strauss-Kahn or Aubry could beat Sarkozy if the election were held now.
With the economy at the forefront, Strauss-Kahn would be a formidable rival, but his elusiveness has exasperated many Socialists. His wife, former star television interviewer Anne Sinclair, said this week she did not want him to seek a second term at the IMF next year.
In theory, candidates have until mid-July to register for a Socialist primary set for October. But few people think Strauss-Kahn can afford to wait that long.
So far only Segolene Royal, the left's candidate in 2007, and a couple of minor figures have said they will run.
"It's in everyone's interest that Strauss-Kahn make his position known as soon as possible. We cannot keep waiting as if he were the Messiah," Socialist Party lawmaker Jean-Louis Bianco told Liberation daily this week.
"What is clear is that Nicolas Sarkozy is a candidate and that he is campaigning. He's a bad president but he'll be a good candidate," he added.
Sarkozy will soon submit a bill to parliament to introduce a "golden rule" on balancing the budget into the constitution, putting the Socialists on the spot over whether to block a move that would please euro zone partner Germany.
"If the Socialists want to be seen by Europe as the ones holding this up, so be it," an official at the ruling UMP party said last week, asking not to be quoted by name.
While there is little suspense about his intentions, Sarkozy may not formally announce his candidacy until France's presidency of the Group of 20 global economic leadership forum ends with a summit in Cannes in November.
He has set another potential trap for Strauss-Kahn by publicly championing a tax on financial transactions backed by anti-globalization campaigners but opposed by the IMF.
On Thursday, he addressed the concerns of a doctor, a student, a young farmer, a middle-aged factory worker and a chemist who had been repeatedly burgled in a carefully managed TV session. Participants had been screened to avoid a repeat of a debate last year when a union activist antagonized Sarkozy.
The president is under pressure over revelations that government ministers recently took trips to Tunisia and Egypt that were part-funded by governments or tycoons close to the autocratic rulers, and a strike by judges.
He faces more discomfort in May when a film based on how his ex-wife Cecilia deserted him after his election hits cinemas.
(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry, Yann Le Guernigou and Brian Love, editing by Paul Taylor and Angus MacSwan)