President Nicolas Sarkozy is trying to accomplish a delicate public relations U-turn over France's endangered 'triple-A' credit rating that could tarnish his credibility with voters just four months before a tough re-election fight.
Lagging in the polls behind Francois Hollande, his Socialist rival, Sarkozy had staged a quiet rebound lately by pitching himself to voters as the only statesman capable of steering France through the euro zone debt crisis.
Part of his approach was to pound home the importance of defending France's top-notch debt rating, which he called sacrosanct and a national treasure whose loss would carry grave consequences.
Now it appears his strategy has worked too well.
With all three top rating agencies saying the 'triple-A' is in mortal danger, the hyperactive Sarkozy is changing his tune - just as voters become aware of the existence of the rating and start to worry about what will happen if it is stripped away.
With the constant harping about the loss of the AAA, and now an about-face along the lines of 'It's not such a big deal', public opinion is lost and there is now a real fear, Frederic Dabi, head of the IFOP polling institute, told Reuters.
In response to the changing times, Sarkozy has adopted a three-pronged communication strategy: disparage the ratings agencies, question their analysis, and point to other countries as more deserving of a downgrade.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, a heavyweight in Sarkozy's cabinet, has said a downgrade would not be a disaster.
And Bank of France Governor Christian Noyer has said the analysis of the mostly U.S.-based agencies is based more on politics than economic fundamentals.
Such arguments have fuelled a noisy diplomatic spat with Britain, whose economy Noyer, Finance Minister Francois Baroin and others have singled out as being in worse shape - and thus riper for a downgrade - than France's.
POLLS SHOW VOTERS WORRIED
The French are not convinced. A poll on Sunday suggested that two-thirds now believe that a downgrade would have serious or very serious consequences.
The leftist opposition has taken advantage of the ratings agencies' warnings to lambast Sarkozy's failed policies. Even within the president's camp, dissenters are highlighting the discrepancy in the government's strategy.
Three months ago, the French didn't know what the triple-A was, former cabinet minister Michele Alliot-Marie told Europe 1 radio on Saturday.
I'm no great communication specialist but to me that looked like a communication error.
Her remark may have been intended as a personal swipe at Sarkozy, who fired her from the foreign ministry this year. But it points to the weakness of a strategy based on redefining concepts on the fly as other high-ranking officials also slip off-message.
For the citizen, losing the triple-A means higher borrowing costs, more limited bank credit, the fact that you need to reduce spending ever more, said Jean-Pierre Jouyet, head of France's AFM financial watchdog.
So it's no trivial matter, losing your triple A. It takes a long time to get back, and that is troubling.
Pollsters say that Sarkozy, whom recent surveys have losing the presidential election next May to Hollande, has already lost this particular public relations battle.
We need to choose: if we've told people for a year that it's extremely serious, and they retained that, let's not tell them today it's no big deal, said Gael Slimane, of the BVA polling agency.
For Sarkozy's backers, paradoxically, the only source of comfort is the prospect that S&P could downgrade several of the 17 euro zone economies simultaneously, diluting France's shame.
If France and Germany are downgraded equally, it will be a non-event, said Christian Saint-Etienne, an independent economist. But if the French grade is lowered by a notch more than the German grade, that will be a significant slap in the face for Sarkozy.
Dominique Reynie, professor at the Paris institute of political studies, agreed: Nicolas Sarkozy would have to take responsibility for it, and Francois Hollande would get credibility.
(Editing by Daniel Flynn)