French President Nicolas Sarkozy used his first re-election campaign rally on Thursday to launch a blistering attack on his frontrunning Socialist rival, calling him an inveterate liar.

"/> French President Nicolas Sarkozy used his first re-election campaign rally on Thursday to launch a blistering attack on his frontrunning Socialist rival, calling him an inveterate liar.

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Sarkozy says rival “lies from morning to night”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy used his first re-election campaign rally on Thursday to launch a blistering attack on his frontrunning Socialist rival, calling him an inveterate liar.

Sarkozy says rival
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François Hollande “lies from morning to night,” Sarkozy told cheering supporters in the Alpine town of Annecy, the day after officially declaring his candidacy for the presidential election in 10 weeks.

“When you tell the English press that you are pro-market (economically liberal) and when you come to explain to the French that finance is the enemy, you are lying, you are lying from morning to night,” he said.

The president was referring to an interview in The Guardian published on Monday in which the Socialist favourite said he wanted to reassure the City of London that it need not worry about his plans to regulate the financial world.

Hollande said in his first campaign rally late last month that the “enemy” was “the world of finance.”

Late Thursday on French television Hollande reacted by accusing Sarkozy of launching “attacks that make no sense when they are full of falsehoods, caricature, manipulation.”

Polls consistently show Hollande as the clear frontrunner and, with the first round of voting on April 22nd, the election is shaping up to be a classic two-horse race between right and left.

Sarkozy came out in fighting form in his Annecy rally, praising his achievements in his five years in office and vowing to carry on reforming.

“In five years, France has changed a lot,” thanks to his government’s actions, the 57-year-old said.

Many analysts say the right-winger failed to deliver on many of his reform promises but Sarkozy produced a long list that he said showed his mandate had been a success.

These included an overhaul of universities, lowering retirement age from 62 to 60, limiting the impact of public sector strikes, and moves to dismantle the 35-hour working week.

Sarkozy set the stage for his re-election campaign last week with a newspaper interview that laid out a conservative social agenda that includes opposition to gay marriage and euthanasia and plans to restrict immigration.

He returned to right-wing themes on Thursday in Annecy, and reiterated his promise to hold a referendum on restricting the right to unemployment benefits.

The French leader’s campaign website, emblazoned with the slogan “A strong France”, went online on Thursday as he took to the campaign trail with a visit to a cheese-making plant in the Alps before the rally.

Sarkozy said on Wednesday he felt it was his duty to stand and see France through its worst crisis since World War II.

Nearly 11 million viewers watched his declaration on France’s main evening news broadcast, shortly after Hollande staged a televised rally for 10,000 cheering supporters in his northern hometown of Rouen.

Far-right champion Marine Le Pen, who inherited the anti-immigrant National Front from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen last year, may have an outside chance of knocking out Sarkozy to snatch a slot in the second-round run-off.

But she is still a little way behind him in opinion polls and is struggling to raise the 500 signatures she needs from mayors and regional councillors to make her candidacy official, with a month to go to the filing deadline.

The latest poll conducted just before Wednesday’s declaration forecast that Hollande would beat Sarkozy in the May 6th run-off by 57 percent to 43.

Having come to office vowing to boost employment and household spending power through economic liberalisation, Sarkozy is running for re-election with joblessness hovering near 10 percent and amid an EU debt crisis.

With Hollande attacking his austerity programme and mocking his promises, Sarkozy’s new pitch is to cast himself as the tough realist steering the French ship through rough waters while Hollande dreams of times gone by.

Shortly after his declaration, right-wing lawmakers approved a plan to raise the sales tax in order to fund a cut in employer social contributions, a measure that Hollande has slammed and vowed to reverse.

Arguing that France faces a crisis “unknown since World War II”, Sarkozy attacked Hollande’s programme, which promises big increases in state spending and the creation of thousands of teaching jobs.

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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