Sarkozy's mea culpa to the press
They are not qualities normally associated with Nicolas Sarkozy: humility, self-awareness, contrition. Then again, the French leader is less than three months from a presidential election in which he is on track, according to all the opinion polls, to be beaten by his socialist rival.
The unexpected mea culpa expressed by the normally confident president, in which he admitted personal and political mistakes, and vowed to quit politics altogether if defeated, was as shocking as it appeared stage-managed.
The surprising je regrette beaucoup came during an official visit last week to the overseas territory of French Guyana to present the traditional new year greetings. Mr Sarkozy then took the unprecedented step of inviting 20 journalists to an "off the record" briefing.
For the next three hours, during which he repeated several times that his remarks were not for public consumption, he made what may see as a last-ditch attempt to transform his image: Super Sarko the Omnipresident had become Nicolas the Penitent.
The message, said Le Monde newspaper, was "I am not the man you think I am."
Asked what he would do if he lost the election, the former lawyer replied: "Yes, I am sure about one thing. I'm 56 years old. I've been in politics for 35 years. I have a profession. I will completely change my life. You will never hear of me again if I am beaten."
Mr Sarkozy added, theatrically: "Life passes so quickly. In any case, I am at the end and I am not afraid."
He said he regretted being photographed with Carla Bruni in Egypt and Jordan at the end of 2007 before they were married.
"It was also an error. When the French saw me happy, they said to themselves 'he has abandoned us'. We have elected the Bionic [Man] and he is happy. This year at Christmas, I didn't go on holiday because, with the crisis, the French wouldn't have understood."
It's not the first time the president has evoked disappearing from the political scene. In 2008, just one year into his five-year mandate, he suggested he would not seek a second term in office. "I'll do this for five years and, afterwards, I'll leave and make money," the news magazine Le Point reported him saying.
The strategy is to "humanise" the president.
With the first round of the presidential election in April, opinion polls show him on 24 per cent of the vote, behind Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party front-runner, who is on 27.5 per cent.
The Elysee is hoping to craft the image of a "brave president" who, despite his unpopularity, is prepared to fight to the end to do the best for his country.
"I have never said the mistakes were other people's fault," Mr Sarkozy added. "I have always thought that I bore the sole responsibility for my mistakes. It's important to analyse oneself."
Government ministers and MPs were divided on the tactic. "He's showing his humility and lucidity," said Lionnel Luca, a member of the ruling right-of-centre UMP party.
But the foreign affairs minister, Alain Juppe, said: "He has so many enemies who are criticising us, there's no point adding more. In the heat of combat, it's not the time."
Jean-Francois Cope, head of the UMP, seemed almost embarrassed: "I see the president almost every day and I can tell you he is totally determined and focused on serving the French. These were quotes taken entirely out of context."
Herve Gattegno, editor of Le Point, said nobody should believe a word of the president's mea culpa, saying he was behaving like the theatrical character Volpone, a Venetian merchant who pretends he is at death's door to trick those after his fortune.
"It's true he is in big trouble: he is unpopular, unemployment is very high; the Right is having doubts; objectively he is more likely to be beaten than to win... [but] this is a signal to mobilise his supporters and a blow to destabilise his opponents."