President Nicolas Sarkozy has flexed France's military muscle overseas, but his foreign forays have not seemed to help his troubled political fortunes as a possible re-election bid looms next year.
In recent weeks, two popular personalities defected from Sarkozy's governing conservative party; the presidential race field widened after a former Socialist Party boss joined; and new polls indicated that more than two-thirds of the French continue to dislike Sarkozy's policies.
Then there's the resurgence of France's main far-right political party, the National Front: Sarkozy, with his reputation as a tough-on-crime former interior minister, poached from its voter base on way to his victory in 2007.
The backdrop spells political trouble ahead for Sarkozy, a strong U.S. ally who has overseen U.N.-backed military action in Libya and Ivory Coast. It could shape his policy choices as the 2012 vote nears. He has not announced formally whether he will run, though many expect he will.
After months in the poll doldrums, Sarkozy was expected to recover on the world stage, with France's presidencies of the Group of Eight and Group of 20 this year. Meanwhile, he has led muscular international action against forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and holdout president Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast.
International affairs analysts have generally rejected the critic's view that Sarkozy's use of the French military abroad might be used for political image-buffing at home.
As in other countries, foreign intervention could help boost a leader's image as a statesman, but domestic pocketbook issues and political loyalties often matter more when election time comes.
In a big recent blow, two popular figures last week said they were quitting Sarkozy's governing UMP party: former Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo and Rama Yade, a two-time former minister of sports and of human rights.
The defections all but opened up a new centrist front against Sarkozy, at a time when he and his interior minister have raised their rhetoric against illegal immigrants, and spoken about France's difficulties in integrating its sizable Muslim community, all the while praising France's Roman Catholic roots, seen by some as rearguard action to block inroads by the National Front.
Ultimately, Sarkozy's dilemma is that during the 2007 campaign he pitched himself as a can-do conservative who could bring the French results on bedrock issues such as unemployment and purchasing power, said one pollster. But for whatever reason _ persistent economic stagnation, brittleness in the labor market, ineffective policies _ Sarkozy's action hasn't been widely felt.
France's economy grew a lackluster 1.5 percent last year, after its biggest shrinkage in decades in 2009, when it contracted 2.5 percent, the national statistics agency Insee has reported.
French unemployment fell to 7.5 percent in the first quarter of 2008, but the global economic crisis then kicked in, causing the jobless rate to rise to 9.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2010, Insee says.
"The French who are disappointed in him had believed his policies would bring results compared to leaders before him," said Frederic Miquet-Marty, of Viavoice, one of several polling agencies that has put Sarkozy's favorable ratings at around 30 percent these days.
Some saw an opportune time to enter the presidential race ring.
Former Socialist party leader Francois Hollande, who has enjoyed a strong return to politics after a public hiatus, announced last week that he'll run for president. Nicolas Hulot, an adored environmentalist and TV personality, said he's exploring his options.
The front-runner in most polls, Socialist former government minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is perhaps the leading wild card. But he's playing it coy while serving as head of the International Monetary Fund in Washington.
The Socialists have provided only one president in the last 50 years, Francois Mitterrand from 1981 to 1995. France's leading opposition party, the Socialists have long been dogged by in-house squabbling _ but that may be changing.
On Saturday, its national council unanimously adopted the party's electoral platform for the presidential and legislative elections next year _ a tacit recognition that dissent has plagued the party for too long.
Meanwhile, it's Sarkozy's political brethren who are struggling to keep their ranks coherent. UMP Secretary-General Jean-Francois Cope expressed his "regret" this week that Borloo and Yade had bolted, and called for unity.
So Sarkozy is looking for results _ any results _ that he can find, and the U.N.-backed military interventions in Ivory Coast and Libya could be part of that, Cope said.
"At the core, he's trapped by this logic of results. The actions he is leading _ like the military action, probably have a place in his calculations _ factor into this search for tangible results," Miquet-Marty said.
"Nicolas Sarkozy's public comments don't have any effect on public opinion any more," he added. After a TV appearance with select voters in early February, Miquet-Marty noted, Sarkozy "lost four points in popularity. ... His word is no longer sufficient to restore his image."