PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy is the least liked of Europe's top five leaders, a poll showed on Friday, confirming the scale of the challenge facing the conservative candidate weeks ahead of his bid for re-election.
Sarkozy, who badly trails Socialist rival Francois Hollande in polls of French voting intentions, has battled with dire popularity ratings at home for much of his term, but the survey showed he is also less liked than many of his European peers.
"There's a lot of strong feeling about Nicolas Sarkozy. He irritates in Europe as much as he does in France," Gael Sliman, head of the BVA Opinion polling institute, said.
Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed held a poor opinion of Sarkozy, compared to 41 percent for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, 42 percent for Britain's David Cameron, 36 percent for Italy's Mario Monti and 34 percent for Spain's Mariano Rajoy.
BVA questioned 4,217 people for the poll in France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Britain.
Sarkozy may justifiably feel upset about his rating outside France after playing a very active role in combat ting the euro zone debt crisis of the past two years, and even more so because he likes to point out that his opponent Hollande is little known in most European capitals.
Sarkozy has already set a record in his home country as the least popular president in the last half century and the polls of voting intentions have without exception shown him losing to Hollande in the election taking place, in two rounds, on April 22 and May 6.
After winning power in 2007, Sarkozy fast alienated voters with his flashy style and flaunting of his marriage to former model Carla Bruni, earning a reputation for hobnobbing with the rich that is proving difficult to shed.
The presidential couple have tried to portray a more modest image in the media in recent weeks, with Bruni toning down her dress style and even saying in a TV show on Thursday that she felt fat and frumpy now compared to her fashion model days.
Sarkozy said this week that he regretted having celebrated his 2007 election victory in a glitzy Paris nightspot and put it down to his troubles at the time with his former wife.
In that appearance he also proposed imposing a minimum tax on large corporations and curbs on CEO pay - announcements that followed Hollande's proposed 75 percent tax rate on incomes of 1 million euros ($1.31 million) upwards.
The corporate tax announcement won 82 percent support in a TNS Sofres poll published on Friday, but 55 percent believed Sarkozy was insincere in his regrets about celebrating his 2007 victory in the swanky nightspot.
After regaining some support in the days after he officially started campaigning in mid-February, the improvement already seems to be fading. In a regular IFOP poll, he is seen taking 26.5 percent of first-round voting intentions compared to 29 percent for Hollande and losing heavily in the final runoff. ($1 = 0.7622 euros)
(Reporting By Vicky Buffery; Editing by Brian Love and Robin Pomeroy)