Sarkozy on defensive in presidential debate
Ex-prez vows to jail Islamists, ban burkini
PARIS: Nicolas Sarkozy was forced onto the defensive Thursday over his legal woes in the first debate of rightwing rivals for the French presidency, including the man tipped to lead the country, Alain Juppe. Former president Sarkozy is trailing ex-prime minister Juppe, 71, in the race for the rightwing nomination, to be decided in a highly anticipated November primary that is expected to produce the next president of France. With the jihadist threat uppermost in voters’ minds following a series of deadly attacks, the primary campaign has tipped over into populism, with Sarkozy particularly accused of chasing after farright National Front (FN) voters.
But compared with the vitriolic exchanges between US presidential rivals Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump the tone of the first televised debate among the seven rightwing candidates was respectful. Sarkozy, 61, nonetheless found himself on the defensive over the various investigations in which he has been entangled since losing his 2012 reelection bid. “After 37 years in politics my criminal record is clean,” he insisted, visibly exasperated.
“Do you think I would take part in this campaign if I had anything on my conscience?” he added, claiming he had been hounded by investigators and subjected to “slander” during probes for influence-peddling and suspected illegal funding of his failed 2012 re-election campaign, among others. Thursday’s debate was the first of three among the candidates for the Nov 2027 primary, the winner of which is expected to go head-to-head with FN leader Marine Le Pen in the second round of the election in May.
The former leader of Sarkozy’s Republicans party, Jean-Francois Cope, said he had hoped Sarkozy would be a reformer when he came to power in 2007 on a promise to shake up the established order. “Ten years ago, I and millions of French people hoped for the change that Nicolas Sarkozy offered for our country. “That change unfortunately never took place,” he said, accusing Sarkozy of ducking the hard choices.
Sarkozy argued his hand had been constrained by “the worst (economic) crisis the world had experienced since 1929” and vowed “strong, energetic” leadership if he returned to power after five years of Socialist rule. Sarkozy has campaigned on a populist platform of protecting French national identity, curbing immigration and giving the “silent majority” more of a say in politics by holding referendums on divisive issues.
On Thursday he reiterated his pledge to jailing hundreds of suspected Islamist radicals, without prior authorization from a judge and ban the Islamic burkini swimsuit. Juppe, who has accused him of “giving the FN a leg up”, has taken a more moderate, inclusive line. “I want to lead you along a path of hope,” the long-time Bordeaux mayor said. Polls show Juppe leading Sarkozy by between eight and 14 percentage points, with the five other candidates, including Cope and Sarkozy’s former prime minister Francois Fillon trailing behind.
LA PLAINE-SAINT-DENIS, France : French lawmaker and candidate for the rightwing Les Republicains (LR) party primaries Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet looks at former French president and candidate during the first televised debate between the seven candidates at the studios of French private television channel TF1 on Thursday.