French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Wednesday he was the man to defend a "strong France" as he announced his re-election bid with 10 weeks to the vote and his Socialist rival leading in opinion polls.

"/> French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Wednesday he was the man to defend a "strong France" as he announced his re-election bid with 10 weeks to the vote and his Socialist rival leading in opinion polls.

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NICOLAS SARKOZY

Sarkozy launches his re-election bid

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Wednesday he was the man to defend a "strong France" as he announced his re-election bid with 10 weeks to the vote and his Socialist rival leading in opinion polls.

Sarkozy launches his re-election bid
Screenshot TF1

Portraying himself as a tough realist as France faces a crisis “unknown since World War II” and dismissing frontrunner François Hollande as a dreamer, Sarkozy said he felt it was his duty to seek a new five-year term.

“Yes, I am a candidate in the presidential election,” Sarkozy said in an interview on France’s TF1 television.

“I took this decision because France, Europe and the world have for the last three years seen a series of unprecedented crises, which means that not seeking a new mandate from the French people would be abandoning my duties.”

Sarkozy presented himself as “the captain of a boat in the heart of a storm” and promised: “The French people must understand that if France is strong, they will be protected. France is a shield for each of us.”

Sarkozy slammed Hollande’s left-wing campaign programme, which promises significant state spending and the creation of thousands of teaching jobs.

“Do you really believe that in the current economic climate, we can tell the French people that we do not need to make savings?” he said.

“In my long political career I have seen many people promise a dream. Those dreams always turned into nightmares,” he said, directly attacking Hollande’s pledge to revive “the French dream”.

Hollande had pre-empted Sarkozy’s declaration by staging a massive campaign rally in his hometown in Rouen, televised live just minutes before the president’s interview. He lashed out at Sarkozy’s record.

“The script has been written: the incumbent candidate will promise new things. He will try to turn his weaknesses into strengths. He has been wrong for five years and now he calls that experience,” Hollande said.

“He’ll pretend that a diet of austerity is a 21st century solution, that we must forget his record, that the crisis has passed, everything is forgotten, that only the future counts,” Hollande said.

Sarkozy, 57, has been operating on a de facto campaign schedule of television appearances and twice-weekly regional tours for months now, but had yet to officially confirm his candidacy.

Opinion polls consistently forecast that Sarkozy will be beaten by Hollande in a run-off on May 6th, but the president’s camp is clinging to hope that he can rekindle the energy that brought him to office in 2007.

Sarkozy’s programme combines the most modern tactics — he launched a Twitter account on Wednesday — with the most traditional — he was due to visit a provincial cheese factory in the Alps on Thursday.

After the trip to the Annecy cheese plant, he will hold a large set-piece rally in the southern port city of Marseille on Sunday.

The French left has not won a presidential election since 1988, but former Socialist Party leader Hollande, 57, has a comfortable lead in the surveys of likely voters.

The latest poll published on Wednesday by Harris Interactive for the news magazine VSD forecast that Hollande would win the first round with 28  ercent to Sarkozy’s 24 percent then sweep the run-off with 57 percent to 43.

In this poll the only other candidate within striking distance of the second round would be far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen on 20 percent, but most observers now see the campaign as a two-horse race.

Brandishing a red card like a football referee expelling a player, Le Pen urged her supporters to teach Sarkozy a lesson at the polls.

“There have been too many betrayals, too many lies, too much manipulation, Nicolas Sarkozy must leave the pitch and give way for a bold, enthusiastic, courageous and clear-headed team, mine!” Le Pen said.

Sarkozy began his time in office vowing to liberalise the economy, reduce unemployment and increase voters’ spending power, but has instead seen France fall prey to the eurozone debt crisis.

He did have some good news on Wednesday: economic growth in the final quarter of last year was confirmed as having been slightly higher than first thought, and thus France is not officially in recession.

But in an interview last week, Sarkozy focused on a conservative social platform rather than on the economy, with plans to ban gay marriage and adoption, limit immigration and restrict unemployment benefits.

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NICOLAS SARKOZY

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

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