While the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is busy on the international stage, support for him in France has crumbled.
Sarkozy losing luster with French voters as poll looms
MARSEILLE, FRANCE // With six months to go before polling begins in the French presidential elections, troubles are piling up for Nicolas Sarkozy, whose rousing victory in 2007 is all but forgotten amid disappointments and disaffection.
While Mr Sarkozy has been busy on the international stage, from championing the Libyan revolution to seeking non-member admission to the UN for the Palestinian Authority and searching frantically for solutions to the euro crisis, support for him in France has crumbled.
A big turnout in last Sunday's first round of the opposition socialist primaries not only highlighted the desire of many French people to drive him from power, but removed the one leading candidate he was thought capable of beating next spring. Ségolène Royal, whom he defeated to win the presidency five years ago, came a poor fourth.
The poll left Ms Royal's former partner, François Hollande, and Martine Aubry to fight it out in the decider tomorrow.
Mr Hollande was nearly nine points ahead of his rival in the first vote and is favourite to win. According to opinion polls, he has replaced the former International Monetary Fund chief, Dominique Strauss-Kahn - out of the race after his legal battles in New York - as the socialist contender who would beat Mr Sarkozy most comfortably.
With French voters apparently eager for change, there are strong signs that the country may send a socialist to the Elysée for the first time since the late François Mitterrand left office in 1995.
Mr Sarkozy may be awaiting happy news on his own domestic front, with his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, due to give birth to their first child together. But in politics, he has followed in the footsteps of his centre-right predecessor Jacques Chirac, whose popularity in France plummeted even when he was earning some respect globally.
Nicknamed "Little Napoleon", Mr Sarkozy led the world in supporting the Libyan rebels in their fight to oust Col Muammar Qaddafi.
While opposing the Palestinian Authority's ambitions for UN membership as unobtainable in the short term, he has strongly backed upgrading its status as an intermediate step.
He also wants a strict timetable on negotiations to find a way out of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse: "one month to resume discussions, six months to find an agreement on borders and security; and one year to reach a definitive agreement".
But if the French like to see their leaders acting as influential statesmen, elections find them more preoccupied with issues on the doorstep.
Unemployment is stubbornly high, prices in the shops are rising relentlessly and transport services were disrupted this week by a strike against the government's austerity measures.
Mr Sarkozy's record on crime and immigration has been attacked by the far right and reform of France's costly pensions system has also enraged voters. Low and mid-earning families complain about their dwindling spending power and a plan to reward workers from employers' profits has backfired, with some complaining this week that they have received only a few euros each.
Moreover, rumours about corruption refuse to go away. Mr Sarkozy angrily dismisses claims that he received illicit cash payments towards electioneering costs from France's wealthiest family. He has also had to deny involvement in the so-called Karachi Affair after two men who have been close to him were questioned in a judicial investigation.
The key accusation is that money from kickbacks for submarine sales to Pakistan were diverted to the campaign fund of a 1995 presidential candidate, Edouard Balladur, for whom Mr Sarkozy was the spokesman.
At first glance it may seem just another of France's interminable tales of malpractices alleged and denied. What makes it more damaging is the possible link with a 2002 suicide bombing in Karachi in which 11 French engineers working on construction of the submarines were killed.
Suspicion initially fell on Al Qaeda but French magistrates have subsequently been investigating suggestions that the attack was provoked by a decision by France under Mr Chirac to halt the payments of commissions for the defence sales, which was legal at the time.
The extent to which the affair will play on electors' minds is unclear. But on domestic issues, only a remarkable comeback by Mr Sarkozy would win him a second term.
Simn Heffer, a right-wing British commentator and historian who backed him in 2007, has written in The Connexion, a newspaper read by English speakers in France, that his presidency has been a "long catalogue of disappointments, broken promises and ostentation".
There have also been whispers that some senior colleagues privately share the doubts.
A poll conducted last weekend for the Nouvel Observateur magazine gave Mr Sarkozy a rise of three points in his approval ratings, but this took him to only 31 per cent.
Either Mr Hollande or Ms Aubry would, according to another poll for Radio France and the newspaper Le Monde, defeat him if the presidential elections were held now.
The only comfort for the president was that the far-right Front National's Marine Le Pen would be eliminated in the first round.
With legislative elections due a month after the presidential poll, Mr Sarkozy is running out of time to portray his presidency as a success.
France's presidency of the Group of 20 (G20) leading economies reaches its climax with next month's Cannes summit, following the finance ministers' meeting that started in Paris yesterday.
Mr Sarkozy's foreign minister, Alain Juppé, came close to admitting this week that the president needs a strong performance there if the comeback is about to begin.