Just back from a couple of interesting days in Paris, speaking to politicians, strategists, analysts, Terra Nova thinktankers, journalists and bloggers about the 2012 Presidential elections.

I met a lot of people who said that President Sarkozy was so unpopular, so low in the polls (about which the French media and political classes are obsessed) that there was no way he could win a second term. Yet a lot of these same people would say, sometimes in the next sentence, that they thought he still might win. So a clear picture it is not.

Of course it is hard to get a proper fix on things when one of the main contenders, the candidate of the left, exists at the moment only as a question mark. Will it be Dominique Strauss-Kahn, currently at the IMF but widely expected to put his name forward in the new Primaries process to select a Parti Socialiste standard-bearer? If he does, Martine Aubry almost certainly will not stand. But will Francois Hollande?Will Segolene Royal fancy another go?

On verra. The general consensus seems to be Strauss-Kahn or Hollande, probably the former. The one thing I did emphasise, privately and publicly, is that once the candidate is chosen, everyone else needs to get behind that candidate. There is something very French about the way they have huge debates, ‘bring them to an end’ with a vote, and then restart the debate immediately. It is one of the reasons Sarkozy is in a bit of bother. He was elected on a clear promise to make major reforms. Once he was elected, and started to bring them in, it was as though the voters suddenly said ‘hold on a minute, not THOSE reforms.’

Compare and contrast with the UK, a two-party government that is doing things that were not in the manifesto of either of them, and yet seemingly getting away with (quite a lot of) it.

I lived in France for a year more than 30 years ago, and I can remember back them thinking that the Parti Socialiste seemed to spend a lot of time just arguing amongst themselves, without much regard for the impact on the public. That impression has endured, and so have many of the people who were arguing. They really do need to make an effort at unity and agreement on policy, theme and message once the campaign proper kicks off.

Sarkozy really does arouse a lot of negative comment. But he will not have lost all the campaigning skills he showed to become President in the first place. Incumbency is a powerful thing, and a Comeback story is a powerful narrative, and one that Sarkoky will be planning on shaping. If the gossip is to be believed, it seems a baby will be playing a part in that too.

Then there is the Front National, whose leader Marine Le Pen has gone from around 10 per cent in the polls to nearer to 20 in pretty short order. That is probably the peak, but supporters of both Sarkozy and of the left have occasional quiet moments worrying that their man might be eliminated in the first round, so that the second round becomes a run off between Le Pen and the eventual winner.

Just as David Cameron sought to ‘decontaminate the Tory brand’ – I’m not sure his ‘calm down dear’ remarks to Angela Eagle in the Commons today were terribly helpful in this regard – she has been working hard to detoxify the Front National brand. The fact that even her opponents seem to call her ‘Marine’ rather than the rather more toxic ‘Le Pen’ suggests she has been having some success, though I don’t join those who say she is a great communicator.

So all to play for, and a really interesting, if somewhat grungy and pessimistic mood in country and in its politics.

I did a few interviews and have put up a couple here and here . Both were with Melissa Bell of France 24, the first in French, the second in English. My French held up pretty well. Hers is flawless. Her Mum is French, her Dad is Martin Bell, ex journalist who became the anti-sleaze candidate in Tatton against Neil Hamilton in 1997 when we and the Lib Dems withdrew our candidates. Happy days!

voila … je sors maintenant faire un peu de velo avant le match Real-Barca … bonsoir a tous et a toutes. (Apologies for lack of accents … mon ordinateur ne parle pas francais)