French leaders' popularity drops, worries pile up

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PARIS, Oct 2 (Reuters) Five months after taking power, the political honeymoon of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Francois Fillon has ended, tarnished by concerns over the economy and the pace of their reforms.

An opinion poll published today showed Sarkozy's popularity beneath 60 per cent and Fillon's below 50 per cent for the first time since the presidential election in May, partly reflecting sinking confidence in France's economic outlook.

''These clouds seem to indicate that the presidential charm has dimmed and that the country is awaiting a fresh presidential vision,'' said Stephane Rozes, the head of pollster CSA which carried out Tuesday's survey for Le Parisien newspaper.

Sarkozy had a popularity rating of 55 percent and Fillon 47 per cent. Both were down six points. Sarkozy was elected on a pledge of comprehensive reforms and says he has made a strong start implementing his manifesto, with an initial wave of tax cuts, a shake up of universities and a pledge to end pension privileges for many state sector workers.

But French voters do not perceive a boost to their purchasing power from the initial reforms. Economic data last week showing a rise in unemployment and a sharp slide in the main consumer morale indicator accentuated concerns.

Fillon only added to the gloom last month by announcing that France was ''bankrupt''. Sarkozy was reportedly furious with his prime minister for exaggerating France's problems and evident strains between the two men are also denting their image.

FLOODING THE AIRWAVES Sarkozy clearly angered Fillon in the summer by referring to him merely as an ''aide'' and by dominating the news agenda with initiatives that left no room for anyone else in the media.

France's INA media institute said Sarkozy appeared on French TV news 224 times between May and August against just 75 times for the previous president, Jacques Chirac, in the same period following his 2002 election victory.

While Sarkozy's dynamic communications policy has given the impression that the presidential Elysee palace has finally woken up after years of slumber, the president risks over exposure and also disappointing voters who expected instant results.

''Sarkozy's honeymoon has been long lasting and very impressive in terms of intensity, but the question now is will he deliver. Just being active is not enough,'' said Philippe Maniere, head of the Paris think tank, the Montaigne Institute.

''The likely tipping point will be at the end of the year.'' A major test for both Sarkozy and Fillon will be their ability to persuade restive unions to give up pension privileges enjoyed by many of their public sector members -- a sensitive and symbolic reform that has sunk previous governments.

They have set a year-end deadline to negotiate a deal, and rail and public transport unions have already called a strike for Oct. 18 to show they won't be pushed around over the issue.

A prolonged social conflict has often spelt disaster for France's rulers, who have regularly bowed to street protests.

''In autumn you get three less minutes of sunshine a day and three less percentage points in the opinion polls each week,'' said Christophe Barbier, editor of L'Express magazine..

''There is no red alert for the executive. They still have some reserves. But if they don't start getting results, if the reforms don't go better, Fillon and Sarkozy are going to go slowly down hill,'' he told LCI television.

REUTERS ARB AS1713

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