LILLE, France (Reuters) - Delivering thundering speeches in three cities that left him worked into a sweat aides had not seen in years, French President Nicolas Sarkozy showed in the first week of his re-election campaign that he has lost none of his oratorical power.
Yet mingling with the public in Lille, a northern city whose bleak backstreets betray its struggle to adapt to the decline of local heavy industry, Sarkozy’s eyes flicker restlessly and he looks ill-at-ease, as if he can sense the hostile mood.
The conservative leader is betting on his legendary verve on the campaign trail as he goes into battle with the double handicap of poor poll ratings and the same anger over the sickly economy that has felled leaders across Europe.
On his side, as he tries to catch up with Socialist Francois Hollande in voter surveys, is his breakneck energy and his plan to unleash a fresh idea a week, while Hollande is stuck defending a campaign programme he launched back in January.
Where he may struggle is at street level, as voters he meets on walkabout blame him for three years of tight purse strings and the highest unemployment in 12 years. Struggling households see the affable Hollande as more likely to protect their welfare benefits.
“I voted for Sarkozy last time but this time I don’t know. He promised a lot but he hasn’t done much,” said Fouzia, a retired cleaning lady in a crowd of bystanders in Lille.
“We are paying too dearly for the euro. We are paying too much just to live,” said the 62-year-old, who said most of her eight children are unemployed and the others do menial jobs. The number of jobless in France has hit a 12-year high.
Since he formally entered what is now a two-horse race on February 15, some polls indicate that Sarkozy has narrowed the gap to 1-2 points behind Hollande for the April 22 first round, though Hollande remains 12 points ahead in surveys for the runoff two weeks later.
High on adrenalin, Sarkozy is betting he can harness the same determination and muscle he has used over the euro zone debt crisis and in North Africa to convince voters they should not replace him with a man who has no ministerial experience.
“What I told you would happen is happening,” he told reporters on the train back from Thursday’s rally in Lille.
“The public was missing a candidate. Now they have got into the campaign. People are talking about a wobble but what I‘m seeing is a turnaround. We are getting our ideas across.”
Citing the late Francois Mitterrand as a once divisive president whom the nation now regards as an uncle, he added: “Whether I‘m liked or not, there is a story there, a drama.”
Sarkozy’s showy impetuousness grates on many, but in packed auditoriums in Annecy, Marseille and Lille he sounded as powerful as he did five years ago, when he sailed to power on vows to pull France out of stagnation and restore full employment.
Ad-libbing from speeches focused on the value of work, he lambasted Hollande as weak and two-faced on economic policy.
“Can the Socialists think of one single thing that Francois Hollande has achieved during 30 years in politics?” he roared, attacking one of Hollande’s weak spots. Aides were thrilled to see his shirt soaked with sweat, just like in the old days.
“He gave it everything he had. He has the same energy and determination as ever,” said Franck Riester, who was with Sarkozy in Lille as his UMP party’s communications head.
Sarkozy’s advisers are convinced that a fiery campaign could be enough to close the gap in the first round and encourage centrists to back him in the runoff, changing the electoral equation.
“If he is outstanding he can open things up. We are fighting for four percentage points,” one longtime aide told Reuters.
Hollande launched his bid as challenger in January with a programme based on using higher corporate and wealth taxes to invest in education and jobs. By withholding the specifics of his own reform-based plan, which is to be unveiled week by week, Sarkozy has cleverly put his rival in a position of defense.
“Sarkozy is a giant when it comes to campaigning. I‘m convinced he can win,” said Pascal Lefebvre, 37, a supporter in Lille. “People may dislike his temperament, but it’s his force of character and hyperactivity that make him a leader.”
Oratory aside, Sarkozy needs desperately to reconnect with a public that gives him a 68 percent personal disapproval rating and soothe the public fury that has brought down governments in Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Italy, Spain, Slovakia and Slovenia.
His focus on structural reforms for growth and jobs has only refocused attention on the economic slump, which has shut factories and left families feeling poorer.
Hollande, known for his easy exchanges with ordinary people, stood on top of a union van this week to address cheering workers at an idled steelworks.
Sarkozy, mixing with passengers on a Paris station platform en route for Lille, looked ill-at-ease as a woman screeched at him about a problem with welfare claims. To his relief, a man broke in to shake his hand and promise to vote for him.
“Well, that’s one vote at least,” Sarkozy joked.
As he met locals in a working class bar in a Lille suburb, a woman outside handed out copies of an irate letter she has written to him about a drop in youths seeking careers in industry, as foreign competition hurts local factories.
As he emerged from the bar, a supporter screamed: “It’s the president, it’s the president!”
But Sarkozy’s lack of height is one more disadvantage for working crowds on foot.
“I‘m afraid he’s not very big so we can’t see him,” a man explained to his young daughter as Sarkozy passed by, obscured by photographers. “Shall I put you on my shoulders?”
Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry; Editing by Alison Williams and Kevin Liffey