France's President Nicolas Sarkozy set the stage on Thursday for a re election campaign marked by a conservative social agenda, vowing to oppose gay marriage and euthanasia and restrict immigration.

"/> France's President Nicolas Sarkozy set the stage on Thursday for a re election campaign marked by a conservative social agenda, vowing to oppose gay marriage and euthanasia and restrict immigration.

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Sarkozy lines up right-wing election promises

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy set the stage on Thursday for a re election campaign marked by a conservative social agenda, vowing to oppose gay marriage and euthanasia and restrict immigration.

Sarkozy lines up right-wing election promises
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Talking to the pro-government Le Figaro, Sarkozy rejected his left-wing opponent’s plans to allow foreigners to vote in local polls, while promising a referendum on restricting the right to unemployment benefits.

Sarkozy stopped short of formally declaring his candidacy for re-election, amid widespread reports that he is due to do so on Wednesday next week, but left no doubt that his mind was made up: “The date is approaching.”

Portraying himself as a defender of traditional values in a time of change, Sarkozy sought to put distance between himself and Socialist rival François Hollande, while wooing supporters of far-right champion Marine Le Pen.

Hollande has notably promised to allow gay marriage and adoption.

“In these troubled times, when our society has need of reference points, I don’t think we should muddy the image of the essential social institution that is marriage,” Sarkozy said, in an interview to appear in a weekend supplement.

Responding to the left’s call for non-European immigrants to be allowed to vote in local elections, Sarkozy said: “It’s really not the time, with all the risks associated with the rise of multiculturalism.”

“In the same vein, I say very clearly that, unlike Mr Hollande, I am not in favour of regularising the situation of undocumented foreigners, which would immediately create fresh demand,” he added.

He said he would introduce new qualification criteria to make it harder for a foreign-born spouse to obtain French nationality by marrying a citizen, and transfer immigration hearings to administrative courts from civil ones.

Sarkozy also proposed a referendum — a constitutional instrument rarely used in France — on a change to the law to allow unemployment benefits to be withdrawn from anyone who refuses retraining or community service work.

Employment is a weak point in Sarkozy’s record. He came to power promising to reduce France’s high level of joblessness to five percent, and has instead seen it climb to a 12-year high of nearly 10 percent.

Although Sarkozy’s unofficial campaign appears to have slowly begun to pick up momentum, for many months all opinion polls have forecast that he will be defeated on May 6th in a second-round run-off against Hollande.

He also faces a tough challenge on his right from Le Pen, who is polling between 16 and 20 percent and hopes to knock him out in the first round.

With the April 22 first round fast approaching Sarkozy has announced a blizzard of initiatives — few of which have much of a chance of clearing parliament in the next 10 weeks — designed to destabilise his opponent.

Thus far, his burst of energy does not seem to have gained him much traction with the electorate — the latest polls still show him losing to Hollande in the first round by 30 percent to 26, and in the run-off by 60 to 40.

If Le Pen fails to find the 500 signatures from mayors or regional councillors she needs to endorse her candidacy, Sarkozy might do better in April, but pollsters still see him on a losing trajectory.

Observers still regard him as a canny campaigner, however, and set-piece events like the Le Figaro interview appear designed to reunite him with the right-wing electorate that was his base when he won the 2007 election.

Five years on his thin record as a reformer, the financial crisis, low growth and a series of personal missteps have damaged his reputation, but he hopes the prospect of a Hollande win will galvanise the right-wing.

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Leaders Sarkozy and Juppé stumble in race for Elysée

Right-wing candidates for the French presidential election face off in the first round of a US-style primary on Sunday with former president Nicolas Sarkozy and ex-prime minister Alain Juppe fighting to avoid being knocked out by an outsider.

Leaders Sarkozy and Juppé stumble in race for Elysée
Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy. Photo: AFP

In a contest overshadowed by the election of Donald Trump in the United States, support for the early favourite Juppe has slipped and Francois Fillon, who served as prime minister under Sarkozy, has risen fast.

The right-wing nominating contest is crucial because with the French left divided, the winner is expected to go on to take the presidency in May, beating far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the runoff.

Juppe, 71, entered the two-month-long contest with polls showing him to be France's most popular politician, but his approach of playing the moderate against the fiery Sarkozy and the conservative Fillon appears to be backfiring.

Most polls now show Juppe and Sarkozy are neck-and-neck at around 30 percent, with Fillon close behind after making striking progress in recent weeks.

The two winners on Sunday will go through to the second round run-off a week later.

Two becomes three

“We were expecting a duel but in the end a three-way contest has emerged,” political scientist Jerome Jaffre said in Le Figaro newspaper on Thursday.

Many have noted that 62-year-old Fillon's rise had coincided with the publication of his latest book entitled “Beating Islamic totalitarianism”.

An often confused final TV debate of the seven candidates on Thursday offered few clues about the possible outcome, although viewers polled afterwards said Fillon had performed the strongest.

Sparks flew when Sarkozy was asked about fresh claims that he received millions in funding from the late Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi towards his 2007 campaign.

Sarkozy called the question “disgraceful” and refused to answer.

Turning to the Trump effect, the former president said a more isolationist America created “a fantastic opportunity for France and Europe to re-establish a leadership role” on issues including border security and the reform of the UN Security Council.

“The next five years will mark the return of France and Europe to the international scene. America won't be there to put us in the shade,” he said.

Juppe meanwhile said the Trump-era heralded a triple “shock” — in the areas of trade, defence and the environment.

A return to protectionism would be “a tremendous regression”, Juppe said, while warning Europe against being “naive” in its dealings with the United States.

The three leading candidates have similar programmes, underpinned by pledges to reinforce domestic security in a country still under a state of emergency following a series of jihadist attacks.

They also share a desire to reinforce European borders and reduce immigration, while tax cuts also loom large.

The choice will come down to style.

Sarkozy has emphasised his tough-guy credentials, saying it makes him a better choice to handle Trump than the mild-mannered Juppe.

Fillon, who is popular in the business world, has promised “radical” economic measures but is the most conservative of the three on social issues.

Another unknown factor in Sunday's first round is the number of left-wing voters prepared to pay two euros and sign a declaration that they subscribe to “the values of the centre and the right” to vote in the right-wing primary.

Those who do are expected to vote against 61-year-old Sarkozy, who remains a highly divisive figure in France four years after he left office.

When the right-wing candidate is chosen on November 27, it is expected to trigger an announcement from deeply unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande on whether he intends to bid for re-election.

On Wednesday, Hollande's former economy minister Emmanuel Macron announced he would stand as an independent.

by AFP's Guy Jackson