By Noah Barkin
PARIS, Aug 8 (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy's
polarising plans to crack down on crime and illegal immigration
have struck a chord with the electorate and may help revive his
flagging fortunes after months of scandal and economic decline.
The measures, unveiled late last month following an upsurge
in violence in the country's poor "banlieues", foresee stripping
French nationality from citizens with an immigrant background
who commit crimes like killing policemen or practising polygamy.
They have been denounced by Sarkozy's leftist opponents as a
cynical ploy to divert attention from a funding scandal dogging
his Labour Minister Eric Woerth. Former Socialist prime minister
Michel Rocard likened the proposals to Nazi-era policies under
France's war-time Vichy regime.
But the tough-on-crime stance that Sarkozy built his
reputation on during a stint as interior minister half a decade
ago and then rode to victory in the 2007 presidential election
appears to be resonating again with a French public that polls
show is increasingly worried about domestic crime and security.
A survey by Ifop published in Le Figaro last week suggested
there is overwhelming support for the measures from voters
across the political spectrum and a Saturday poll in Le Parisien
daily showed Sarkozy's popularity ratings, in freefall for
months, inching up in the wake of the crime plans.
"Can Sarkozy use this to revive his fortunes? Yes of course
he can," said Frederic Micheau of Ifop. "This is a core theme
for him, one he built his reputation on and one which helped him
win in 2007. It had become urgent for him to do this because he
was losing momentum, losing credibility."
Steep losses for Sarkozy's centre-right UMP party and a rise
in support for the far-right National Front in regional
elections last March underscored the risks for the president of
ignoring the core conservative voters that fuelled his run to
the Elysee Palace three years ago.
Many have grown disillusioned with the slow pace of economic
reforms promised during the 2007 campaign. Statistics showing a
steady rise in violent crimes since Sarkozy took office had also
left him vulnerable on an issue seen as a traditional strength.
UNSETTLE FRENCH LEFT
By returning the focus to security, Sarkozy hopes to win
back these disillusioned constituents, shift the debate away
from the Woerth scandal and unsettle the left, which apart from
Rocard has been reluctant to criticise the substance of the
president's crime proposals because they appear so popular.
"It is not a favourable subject for the left and you can see
that by how silent they have been," said Patrick Weil, a
Sorbonne historian and author of 2009 book "How to be French --
Nationality in the making since 1789".
"They would prefer to keep the focus on the economy, on
unemployment and on Woerth," he said.
Still, reviving his record low popularity ratings in time
for a tough re-election battle in 2012 will depend on whether
Sarkozy can build on the nascent gains seen over the past week
and regain the momentum on other fronts, notably the economy.
Data last week showed a sharp narrowing of the government
budget deficit in the first half of 2010, while separate figures
showed French exports at their top level in nearly two years.
Gross domestic product (GDP) for the second quarter, due on
Friday, could also surprise on the upside, giving the government
ammunition against opponents who have heaped blame for France's
economic woes on the 55-year-old president.
While countries like Germany have seen unemployment fall
this year as they recover from their deepest post-war recession,
the French jobless rate has stuck stubbornly near 10 percent for
months -- a big reason for Sarkozy's poor ratings.
The weak economy has in turn complicated the government's
challenge in pushing through a planned increase in the
retirement age to 62 from 60 -- part of an overhaul of pension
rules to ease the pressure on strained public finances.
French labour unions have promised massive protests in
September when the controversial legislation goes to parliament.
If Sarkozy can muster the political capital to overcome
union resistance on pensions, analysts say the momentum could
shift against the opposition Socialists whose divisions on
economic policy and on who should challenge the president in
2012 have been overshadowed by the government's woes until now.
Much also depends on a cabinet reshuffle that Sarkozy has
promised for October. With the shakeup, he hopes to draw a line
under his past troubles and win fresh momentum heading into
2011, when he will seek political advantage from France's
presidencies of the G8 and G20.
Sarkozy must decide whether to keep on Prime Minister
Francois Fillon, an emerging centrist rival within the UMP whose
popularity ratings exceed his own.
The fate of polarising cabinet members like hard-line
Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux and Woerth, who is
spearheading the pension overhaul amid illegal donation
allegations linked to L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, will
also be closely watched.
"The reshuffle is very important," said the Sorbonne
historian Weil. "Sarkozy will try to use it to bring his troops
together and build on this opening to the conservatives that
we've seen with the crime crackdown."
(Editing by Charles Dick)