Launching his campaign for reelection, President Nicolas Sarkozy took a novel tack. In a solemn speech delivered in Churchillian tones, he promised France a new order of sweat and tears, if not blood.

Sarkozy’s theme Thursday night in Toulon dramatized how tightly his political future has become interwoven with the debt crisis shaking the foundations of Europe. Facing an election in the spring but forced to impose drastic austerity now, the business-oriented president has decided to sell himself as the only leader capable of the cutbacks that France must accept to avoid bankruptcy.

“Nothing will be as it was before,” he told an audience of supporters in the gritty Mediterranean port.

The strategy outlined by the combative French leader sets the stage for a high-profile test of whether a candidate — even a famously canny candidate — can get elected by promising voters a new era of hard times: a “debt-reduction cycle” that Sarkozy acknowledged would mean more work and fewer social benefits for France’s 64 million inhabitants.

The recent fates of other European leaders suggested that Sarkozy, 56, faces an uphill struggle. Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero leaves office this month, pushed aside for making the difficult budget cuts he said the country needed. Facing national collapse, George Papandreou had to turn over the reins to a banker in Greece. Silvio Berlusconi was laughed out of power in Italy, disgraced by the national debt after surviving months of attacks over his sexual escapades.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, seen at the G20 Summit last month, is promising his country austerity as he launches his reelection campaign amid Europe’s debt crisis. (Charles Plantiau/Reuters)
Sovereignty and Germany

Sarkozy, in deciding to work closely with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has added another danger to his chances of getting reelected. His opponents, mainly supporting the Socialist Party candidate, Francois Hollande, have accused him of surrendering French sovereignty to Germany. In a country still scarred by German humiliation and occupation in World War II, this could prove to be an effective weapon in the four months before voting begins.

At issue is Merkel’s insistence that the European Union enforce fiscal discipline, which implies agreement by E.U. countries to relinquish some sovereignty in budget decisions. In weeks of talks with Sarkozy, she has made an enforcement mechanism a condition for accepting the French insistence on “European solidarity,” Sarkozy’s euphemism for greater willingness by rich E.U. countries — chiefly Germany — to help their heavily indebted neighbors.

Talks to resolve the differences have absorbed both governments for weeks, and they are still underway in Berlin and Paris. Merkel and Sarkozy have promised to outline joint proposals Monday, in time for an E.U. summit Wednesday. But even before the outcome, Merkel has been identified as the one holding the upper hand, because France is heavily indebted and Germany is not.

One Socialist lawmaker, Arnaud Montebourg, said Sarkozy was bowing to the “Bismarckian” diplomacy being waged by Merkel. Hollande was more diplomatic but no less critical: “It is Mrs. Merkel who decides and Mr. Sarkozy who follows,” he said after meetings with E.U. officials in Brussels.

Sarkozy, in his speech, argued that, on the contrary, close cooperation with Germany was the only way to preserve French sovereignty. Without French-German leadership, the European debt crisis will not be resolved, he said, and without resolution of the debt crisis, France cannot be independent of the banks that hold its debt and the rating agencies that judge its creditworthiness.

“France and Germany have chosen the path of convergence,” he said. “I will never go back on that choice. That does not mean that one wants to follow along behind the other, or that the two want to renounce their identities to the point that they melt together.”

The campaign approaches

Despite the ring of campaign themes and an audience of 5,000 supporters to clap at the right places, Sarkozy’s aides denied that the Toulon speech was the start of the political campaign. The president has not formally announced his candidacy, they pointed out, and his address to the French was part of his duties as president in troubled times.

“The Socialist Party is not going to prohibit the president from presiding,” an official at the Elysee Palace told French journalists Friday.

But politicians and commentators were not in a mood to listen to such distinctions. Socialist officials accused Sarkozy of campaigning at the taxpayers’ expense, demanding that the government’s campaign watchdog order him to pay his own way. Whatever the presidential office says, commentators argued, the campaign is well underway.

“This rally in Toulon had the length, the color and the ardor of a campaign launch,” wrote Herve Cannet in the New Republic of the Center-West, a regional newspaper.

In addition, Sarkozy aimed campaign-style barbs at Hollande over the main divisions between his government and the Socialists, particularly his reductions in social benefits, such as postponing the retirement age, from 60 to 62, and reducing the number of civil servants. More reductions are likely to come, he said, adding to speculation that a new austerity plan — the third this year — is in the making.

“For decades, we have been spending too much, and often poorly,” Sarkozy said. “This cannot go on any longer. The habit adopted by the government to be a window where the response was yes, not for those who needed it most, but for those who could protest and block the most, this can no longer go on.”

Benefits and drawbacks

Largely because of the cutbacks, Hollande, 57, has carved out a wide lead over Sarkozy in opinion polls, winning up to 60 percent of those queried about whom they would pick in a second-round standoff between him and Sarkozy. But at the same time, he has had trouble portraying himself as presidential timber. He has never been a minister, has little foreign experience and comes off in public appearances as genial but indecisive.

Reinforcing the point, Hollande was reported Friday to be discussing budget reductions in Correze, the rural district he represents in parliament, while his followers took on the task of challenging Sarkozy.

In contrast, Sarkozy has sought to portray himself as a captain steering the ship of state through stormy seas in a way Hollande could never manage. The problem, his opponents have replied, is that many of the overspending problems he denounces have been around for years, even as Sarkozy worked his way up as mayor, budget minister, interior minister and, for the past five years, an all-powerful president.

“He is criticizing his own record,” said Jean-Luc Melanchon, a presidential candidate for the Leftist Front.