By Catherine Bremer
PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy is facing up to the possibility that he could lose power in April's election, admitting to aides that a stubborn lead in polls by his Socialist rival means his days could be numbered.
The conservative leader, stuck with dismal ratings as France endures a third year of economic gloom, sounded uncharacteristically defeatist as he remarked during a weekend trip to French Guyana that the election could spell the end of his political career.
"In any case, I am at the end," Sarkozy told aides and a pool of accompanying reporters in off-record comments leaked in French media on Tuesday. "For the first time in my life I am facing the end of my career."
Sarkozy, known for his breathless pace of activity and a tendency to micromanage, said that if he lost the two-round election on April 22 and May 6 he would quit politics and swap public life for a quieter working life with four-day weekends.
"In any case, I would change my life completely, you would no longer hear anything of me," he said, in remarks published in the dailies Le Monde and Le Figaro.
Sarkozy has been behind Socialist Francois Hollande in the polls for months, and has far-right leader Marine Le Pen and Centrist Francois Bayrou snapping at his heels. Hollande could beat him by 10 percentage points in a runoff, surveys show.
Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, photographed next to a stony faced Sarkozy during a shallow boat trip in Guyana, played down the comments as a "non-event" and said the media were giving them an inappropriate political spin.
A longtime adviser to Sarkozy told Reuters he was simply being honest. "Sarkozy always says what he thinks. He said he hopes to win but he could be beaten; it's simply the truth. It's a big discovery, yes, but he's not daft," he said.
"Imagine if he had told them there is no chance he could be beaten - the headline would have been 'This guy is crazy'."
A powerful orator who took France by storm in his 2007 campaign by painting himself as a breath of fresh air who would get people working more to earn more, Sarkozy is waiting until close to a March 16 deadline to announce his reelection bid.
He has been in campaign mode for months, however, using a televised New Year's speech to appeal to the nation to be stoic in the face of further economic malaise and unveiling a 430 million euro crisis plan for unemployment last week.
He has told aides he is confident he can pull voters to his side in a punchy last-minute campaign that will be honest about mistakes made in office but show him as best-placed to make France more competitive and pull it out of crisis.
The loss of France's AAA credit rating this month, when Standard & Poor's downgraded a slew of euro zone countries, was seen as a huge blow for Sarkozy, and was followed this week by an S&P downgrade of its ratings of France's top banks.
But the conservative leader preempted the downgrade, saying in December that it would not be "insurmountable" and switched his focus from deficit-cutting to growth, hosting talks with unions last week to work out a crisis plan to stem unemployment.
Under the plan, the state will increase its spending on job training and an underused partial unemployment scheme designed to keep workers employed during downturns. Sarkozy plans to unveil deeper reforms at the end of January.
Economic discontent is boosting support for Le Pen, whose poll scores suggest she could even make it into the May 6 runoff. Bayrou's surging poll ratings make him a growing threat.
Hollande wowed anti-capitalist voters on Sunday, showing a panache that even impressed Sarkozy aides, with a keynote speech that declared war on the world of finance.
Sarkozy is disliked by many French for his brash, over-familial style, but he believes the weight he has as president and his experience on the world stage still give him an edge over Hollande, who has never held a ministerial post.
A BVA survey in the daily Le Parisien on Tuesday found that Hollande is indeed seen as having less of a presidential air, yet is rated much more highly than Sarkozy for credibility on economic issues such as unemployment, growth and purchasing power.
Fighting back, the ruling UMP party published a pamphlet on Tuesday listing Sarkozy's achievements in power.
In what some see as another pre-election maneuver, the UMP got a bill passed in the Senate on Monday that would make it a crime to deny the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 was genocide. Many of the 500,000 Armenians in France can vote, but far fewer of the Turks have voting rights.
(Additional reporting by Brian Love; Editing by Alison Williams)