Paris - As French President Nicolas Sarkozy seeks to woo far-right voters ahead of the 6 May presidential polls, the spotlight falls on the man suspected of being behind his shift rightwards.
"Evil genius, prodigious strategist ... who really is Patrick Buisson?" the right-wing French weekly Figaro Magazine asked last month, as curiosity and controversy surrounding the aide began to mount.
Referred to as Sarkozy's principal advisor by the French media, the former far-right journalist is said to have steered Sarkozy toward the anti-immigrant and borderline eurosceptic tactics at the centre of his campaign.
Though the tough rhetoric failed to win Sarkozy enough votes to secure the top spot in the first round of the election on 22 April, he is now counting on it to give him an edge in the upcoming second and final round.
As he goes head-to-head with Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande - who won round one by a thin margin of 28.6% to Sarkozy's 27.2% - Sarkozy believes he will have to reach out to National Front voters to win.
With National Front candidate Marine Le Pen coming in third with a historic 18%, opinion polls suggest that Sarkozy must siphon away at least 70 to 75% of her votes to beat Hollande.
No official position
Enter Buisson, the 63-year-old advisor and poll expert who was instrumental in Sarkozy's 2007 victory and who has since risen above the rest of the entourage to become Sarkozy's key confidant.
As head of the polling firm Publifact, Buisson and his team conducted €1.5m worth of surveys for the Sarkozy government in 2008, according to the French court of auditors.
Though he has no official position in Sarkozy's government nor in his re-election campaign, Buisson is nevertheless credited with having inspired several of Sarkozy's campaign tactics, according to French media.
The aide who came from the strongest French far-right tradition is said to have been behind Sarkozy's speech on immigration, in which he vowed to halve the annual number of arrivals into France to 100 000 from 180 000.
Buisson is likewise said to have inspired Sarkozy's vow to suspend the Schengen agreement allowing visa-free travel and to have convinced Sarkozy to present himself as "the people's candidate" against the elite.
This oft-repeated credo - "I want to be the French people's candidate and not that of a small elite" - has almost become a campaign slogan since Sarkozy announced his candidacy in mid-February.
"I want to talk to the powerless. I want to talk to the rural folk who don't want to starve, I want to talk to workers who don't want the unemployed to earn more than them," Sarkozy said again on 23 April.
Bald and with rimless glasses, Buisson is a discreet man who runs the television channel Histoire and honed his chops at the far-right weekly Minute, where he wrote from 1981 to 1987.
There he criticised the Socialist government of President Francois Mitterand and celebrated the National Front's notorious founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, who at the time was emerging from relative anonymity to a leading role.
Now, under the leadership of Le Pen's daughter Marine, the far right is at the centre of political calculations ahead of the 6 May election run-off.
But, though Buisson is considered the mastermind behind Sarkozy's tilt toward the National Front, the aide rejects the idea that Sarkozy has shifted.
"This idea of 'a move to the right' is the surest sign of the mental confusion that has taken hold of some minds," Buisson said in mid-March in the French newspaper Le Monde.
"If 'a move to the right' consists of taking into consideration the suffering of the most at-risk and vulnerable French, it's because the old political categories no longer make any sense," he added.
Buisson thinks that Hollande's Socialist Party has become "the mouthpiece of the new dominant classes" and that it follows an "ideology of globalisation" that the French people will reject.