Sarkozy rallies troops for final election battle

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist challenger Francois Hollande staged rival street rallies for tens of thousands of supporters Sunday, one week from their presidential election.

In a forceful display in the Place de la Concorde before a sea of tricolour banners, Sarkozy rallied his UMP party’s right-wing faithful with an appeal to an “Eternal France” embodied by Moliere, Napoleon and Charles de Gaulle.

Further east, by the Chateau de Vincennes, Hollande told a similarly huge but visibly more diverse crowd that it was time for a change after five years of injustice and austerity at the hands of Sarkozy and financial markets.

Both events matched the campaigns’ hopes and set the stage for a week of campaigning ahead of the April 22 first-round vote, which is expected to see the pair chosen as frontrunners to proceed to a May 6 run-off.

“You are France!” Sarkozy declared to his supporters, targeting right-wing traditionalists with attacks on multiculturalism, teaching unions, affirmative action and Europe’s open borders, while defending families and hard work.

“I will never accept an egalitarian, levelled-out France that turns its back on talent because it fears it,” he declared, to wild cheers. 

“We will never accept multiculturalism. We will never let the founding institutions of the republic be destroyed,” he said, vowing again to hold referendums if his planned reforms are blocked by the political system.

He promised a debate on allowing the European Central Bank to support growth, an idea that puts him on collision course with Germany.

“This is a question that we cannot avoid. Because if Europe doesn’t want to lose its footing in the world economy, it absolutely needs growth,” he said.

And he repeated his demands for tighter border controls and EU trade protectionism.

“What has happened in the past four years are warning signs that the world must recognize. I tell you gravely: What is at stake is no more nor less than the survival of a form of civilisation – ours,” he said.

“Take your identity in your hands! Stand tall! Speak out! Declare strongly what you want for your country! Have no fear,” he declared.

Sarkozy’s display oozed a confidence not supported by recent opinion polls, all of which forecast a comfortable victory for Hollande in the second round, and the Socialist was no less forceful in his own address.

Declaring himself the saviour of the “French dream” he vowed to defend France against global capital markets and renegotiate the European fiscal compact to replace its austerity measures with a plan for growth.

“I will be the president of a republic much stronger than the markets, a France stronger than finance,” he said. “I will be a president of justice. 

Before taking any decision, I will ask myself: ‘Is this fair?’.”

“We have waited too long – 10 years in opposition! We have a duty to win. On April 22 give me the force to lead you to victory on May 6. Next Sunday is our victory, all of us together,” he declared.

Place de la Concorde, just across the River Seine from the National Assembly and lying between the Champs Elysees and the Louvre, was the scene of Sarkozy’s triumphant victory rally in 2007.

UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope claimed 100,000 had come to cheer Sarkozy, but observers thought this exaggerated.

The Socialists also claimed 100,000, and the rival crowds looked similar in scale in television images supplied by the campaigns.

The police made it clear they would be giving no estimates. In any case, nothing in the race has yet shifted the underlying polling data: Sarkozy appears to be on course for a clear defeat after one term.

Sarkozy was banking on large numbers to support his theory that the polls are failing to take into account a “silent majority” on the right.

“Tomorrow, I’m going to bring together many, many, many of the French. I can feel mobilisation. I can feel the popular will,” he said Saturday.

“I want tomorrow to address the silent France: Those who don’t smash up bus shelters; those who just want to be allowed to work. To those who love their families, the land. Those who love their country,” he said.

But in his speech on Sunday Hollande denounced any attempt to set one half of France against the other. “There is not a noisy minority on the one side, and on the other a silent majority,” he said.

The final week of campaigning will also be the last chance for the trailing candidates to make their mark before they are eliminated.

Communist-backed left-winger Jean-Luc Melenchon has made the surprise breakthrough of the campaign, and his Left Front party is battling Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigrant, anti-EU, far-right National Front for third place.

Recent polls have both at between 13% and 17% – some giving Melenchon a slight advantage, some Le Pen – despite the latter’s bold claim that she will win double the hard left’s score.

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Corruption trial begins for France’s ex president Sarkozy

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy goes on trial on Monday on charges of trying to bribe a judge, in what could be a humiliating postscript to a political career tainted by a litany of legal investigations.

Corruption trial begins for France's ex president Sarkozy
Nicolas Sarkozy. Photo: AFP

Though he is not the first modern head of state in the dock – his predecessor and political mentor Jacques Chirac was convicted of embezzlement – Sarkozy is the first to face corruption charges.

He fought furiously over the past six years to have the case thrown out, and has denounced “a scandal that will go down in history”.

“I am not a crook,” the 65-year-old, whose combative style has made him one of France's most popular rightwing politicians, told BFM TV this month.

Prosecutors say Sarkozy promised the judge a plush job in Monaco in exchange for inside information on an inquiry into claims that Sarkozy accepted illicit payments from L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt for his 2007 presidential campaign.

Their case rests in large part on wiretaps of phone conversations between Sarkozy and his longtime lawyer Thierry Herzog, which judges authorised as prosecutors also looked into suspected Libyan financing of Sarkozy's 2007 campaign.

That inquiry is still underway, though Sarkozy caught a break this month when his main accuser, the French-Lebanese businessman Ziad Takieddine, suddenly retracted his claim of delivering millions of euros in cash from Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

Sarkozy and Herzog have assailed the taps on their phones as a breach of client-attorney privilege, but in 2016 a top court upheld their use as evidence.

Charged with bribery and influence peddling, Sarkozy risks a prison sentence of up to 10 years and a maximum fine of €1 million.

Herzog, a leading member of the Paris bar, faces the same charges as well as violation of professional secrecy. The trial is expected to last three weeks.

'A boost'

Investigators discovered that Sarkozy used an alias – Paul Bismuth – to buy a private phone for conversing secretly with his lawyer.

On around a dozen occasions, they discussed reaching out to a top French judge, Gilbert Azibert, a general counsel at the Cour de Cassation, France's top appeals court for criminal and civil cases.

Prosecutors say Azibert, who is also on trial, was tasked with trying to obtain information from the Cour de Cassation lawyer in charge of the Bettencourt inquiry, and to induce him to seek a verdict in Sarkozy's favour.

In exchange, Sarkozy would use his extensive contacts to give “a boost” to Azibert's efforts to secure the cushy Monaco post.

“He's been working on it,” Herzog tells Sarkozy in a call from early 2014.
Azibert was already considered a leading candidate for the job, but “if you give him a boost, it's always better,” Herzog says in another.

“I'll make him move up,” Sarkozy tells Herzog, according to the indictment by prosecutors, who compared his actions to those of a “seasoned offender”.

But later, Sarkozy tells his lawyer that he would not “approach” the  Monaco authorities on Azibert's behalf — a sign, according to prosecutors, that the two men had been tipped off about the wiretaps.

“Mr Azibert never got any post in Monaco,” Sarkozy told BFM television this month – though under French law, just an offer or promise can constitute corruption.

Still in limelight

Sarkozy, a lawyer by training, has long accused the French judiciary of waging a vendetta against him, not least because of his attempts to limit judges' powers and criticism that they are too soft on delinquents.

He will again be back in court in March 2021 along with 13 other people over claims of campaign finance violations during his unsuccessful 2012 re-election bid.

Prosecutors accuse Sarkozy's team of using a fake-invoices scheme orchestrated by the public relations firm Bygmalion to spend nearly €43 million on the lavish run – nearly twice the legal limit.

The long-running legal travails hindered his comeback bid for the 2017 presidential vote, losing out as the rightwing nominee to his former prime minister François Fillon.

Yet like other former French presidents, Sarkozy has surfed a wave of popularity since announcing his retirement from politics in 2018, pressing the flesh with enthusiastic crowds at his public appearances.

Lines of fans queued over the summer to have him sign his latest memoirs, “The Time of Storms”, which topped best-seller lists for weeks.

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