Five years after his passionate promises to shake up France and put more money in workers' pockets swept him to power, Nicolas Sarkozy is fighting for his political life.

The most unpopular French president to seek re-election, Sarkozy came second to Socialist Francois Hollande in Sunday's first-round vote but the big surprise was a record 19 percent score for far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Sarkozy has already angered moderate voters who supported him in 2007 by taking a hard line on immigration in office and in his 2012 campaign, and he hinted on Sunday night he will lean further right to ensure Le Pen voters back him in round two.

Despite his first-round setback, Sarkozy tweeted that he could still win the runoff. He trailed Hollande by little more than a point. But it was Le Pen's backers who were chanting Victory!.

I call on all those who love the fatherland to vote for me, Sarkozy said, responding to Le Pen's surge by promising to focus on tightening border controls, reining in immigration and challenging Hollande to three television debates.

Everything must be debated without hypocrisy, without evasion, without concealment, he said.

The conservative's fiery 2007 campaign and determination to reach the top despite being the son of a Hungarian immigrant without the elite upbringing of his political peers drew young voters, factory workers and centrists to behind him then.

Today, the impetuous, aggressive manner that lifted him then not only failed to seduce voters angry over economic gloom but appeared to weigh hard against him.

Sarkozy, who prefers expensive watches, polo shirts and pop music to fine cheese, wine and literature and comes across at times more like a street fighter than a head of state, has been stuck at the bottom of popularity polls since early in his term.

A survey by pollster Ifop published a week before the first-round vote found 64 percent of respondents were unhappy with him as president and only 36 percent satisfied, despite his handling of a string of international crises.

The only incumbent to run for re-election with almost as low a score was centre-right Valery Giscard d'Estaing. He lost the 1981 election to Socialist Francois Mitterrand, the only sitting president to be defeated in 54 years of the current system.

Sarkozy's biggest failure in the eyes of many voters is that rather than putting an end to the scourge of unemployment, as he promised, jobless claims have surged by 750,000 to their highest level in 12 years due to the economic crisis.

His main reforms - raising the retirement age to 62 from 60, loosening the 35-hour work week, giving universities more autonomy and tweaking the tax system to encourage overtime and home ownership - have earned him little credit with voters.

This year, Sarkozy has pledged to reform labour markets and the tax system to bolster industry and job creation, promised to halve legal immigration and offered popular referendums on key policies in a bid to turn the tide in his favour.

Yet many ordinary people say they are repelled by his brash personal style and cast their votes to get rid of him rather than out of enthusiasm for Hollande, who has never held ministerial office and spent decades as a backroom functionary.

Even conservative allies felt queasy at the publicity that surrounded the break up of the president's marriage just a few months into his term and his whirlwind courtship of Italian-born supermodel Carla Bruni, who became his third wife.


Sarkozy, 57, recently apologised for rude outbursts early in his term and admitted he sent the wrong message by celebrating his 2007 election victory with millionaire buddies at a swank Paris restaurant and borrowing a businessman's yacht.

He voiced regret for having tried to secure a plum public sector job for his student son and for snapping at a fisherman who insulted him during a heated exchange in 2007 over fuel costs. He has vowed to be a different president if re-elected.

I made a mistake, he told France 2 television of the fisherman incident. When somebody insults me I don't like it, but as a president I shouldn't have reacted like that.

Still, his popularity ratings have improved little and many middle-of-the-road voters who backed him in 2007 say they will vote for the left or just cast a blank ballot this time around.

A lawyer by training, Sarkozy built his political base as mayor of the upmarket Paris suburb of Neuilly and gained national attention in 1993 by striding into a nursery school to rescue infants taken hostage by a man dubbed Human Bomb.

He became right-hand man to Prime Minister Edouard Balladur in 1993-95, serving as budget minister and spokesman for Balladur's unsuccessful presidential campaign, turning his back on his former mentor, Jacques Chirac. When Chirac won in 1995, Sarkozy spent seven years in the political wilderness.

He returned as a tough interior minister in 2002-04 and 2005-07, serving as finance minister in 2004-05, when he won control of the governing UMP party against Chirac's wishes.

When the global financial crisis exploded in 2008, Sarkozy adopted an anti-capitalist tone familiar on the French right, vowing to punish speculators and advocating a strong state role in the economy. He led the European response and helped create the G20 summits of major world economies, drawing in the big emerging nations.

He improved ties with Washington, returning French forces to NATO's military command for the first time since 1966, negotiated a ceasefire in a brief 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, and led Western military action in Libya last year.

Mocked for his platform heels and fidgety manner, the diminutive Sarkozy has tried to act more presidential, but recently slid back into vitriolic exchanges with political opponents or reporters.

(Editing by Paul Taylor)