France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, left, and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy leave the French TV channel TF1, in Boulogne-Billancourt, outside Paris on Wednesday, Feb 15, 2012. — PHOTO: AP

MARSEILLE – Nicolas Sarkozy was to stage the first major rally of his improbable re-election bid on Sunday as his former supermodel wife Carla Bruni road-tests an equally improbable down-to-earth makeover.

With barely nine weeks to go until the first round of France’s presidential election, Sarkozy was to address a crowd of 10,000 supporters gathered to cheer him on in the rough-and-ready Mediterranean port city of Marseille.

And by his side for the first time of the campaign was to be a first lady formerly more associated with Parisian glamour and jet-set resorts, now trying to re-imagine herself as an ordinary young mum and doting spouse.

Sarkozy has begun to close the gap between him and opposition Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande – and thus to close the gap between him and a second five-year term in the Elysee – as polling day approaches.

But the right-winger remains on course for a humiliating defeat. Sunday’s latest poll by LH2-Yahoo! was in line with all recent surveys in forecasting that Hollande would sweep the May 6 run-off with 55 percent to Sarkozy’s 45.

So much was riding on the rally in Parc Chanot, at which he was to give a speech developing his theme of extolling conservative French values and promising a “strong France” through “effort, responsibility and authority.”

But, as much as his increasingly familiar words, the visual signals of the event were to take on a particular importance, as this was to be the first event attended by his usually glamorously aloof spouse.

Her arrival was prepared as carefully as any of the Italian-born heiress’ appearances on the fashion world’s catwalks in her former life before her 2007 marriage to Sarkozy and last year’s birth of their daughter Giulia.

For the past week she has appeared in an apparently “stolen” video ajusting her husband’s Legion of Honour medal and giving him an awkward kiss, before giving an interview in the determinedly low-brow weekly TV Magazine.

In this listings magazine, distributed free with 60 local papers nationwide, she told of her love of popular soap operas like “Plus Belle la Vie,” which is set in Marseille, and cheap and cheerful gameshows like “Fort Boyard”.

In the tabloid Le Parisien and the freesheet 20 Minutes she declared meekly that she was “100 percent” behind her husband’s re-election bid, as he is the “best able to keep the country on course … and has done everything well.”

“I’ll accompany my husband when he needs me … in symbolic moments, in rallies,” she said, turning her back on her image as a champagne leftist and social libertarian and pledging allegiance to Sarkozy’s conservatism.

Once, Paris gossips would joke about Carla’s reported campaign to develop the cultural and intellectual values of her husband, whose Rolex and Rayban nouveau-riche image has proved hard to shift.

Now, she claims that thanks to him she has begun to enjoy watching reality television talent shows and football and to be learning from her husband the joys of following the Tour de France bike race.

Image management experts are sceptical that the makeover will work, or that Sarkozy himself will regain the lost affection of the French electorate, which seems to have absorbed the idea of him as a president for the rich.

“It’s not at two months from election that you try to change the image of a president,” said Bruno Jeanbart, of pollster OpinionWay. “Especially as Nicolas Sarkozy has a very settled image.”

And it will be no easier for Carla, warns media expert Domninique Wolton.

“Carla is glamour, glossy fashion magazines. That’s not to say there’s a particular antipathy towards her, but she’s not everyday enough for people to identify with her,” he said.



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