Hollande still favourite as election day nears

France votes in the first round of a presidential election Sunday with Socialist Francois Hollande the favourite over incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, whose personal style and handling of the economy alienated many voters.

Hollande still favourite as election day nears

Despite having no government experience, Hollande, 57, is leading in most opinion polls ahead of the first round and is the clear favourite to win the May 6 run-off vote.

Right-winger Sarkozy, also 57, has narrowed Hollande’s first-round lead with an aggressive campaign focusing on hot-button issues like security and immigration, and warnings that a Socialist win will spark financial chaos.

But pollsters say Sarkozy has failed to overcome disappointment over his five-year term since 2007, fuelled by his extravagant style and increasing joblessness despite his vows to create wealth and jobs.

Fears over unemployment, purchasing power and austerity measures have also seen Communist-backed candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, 60, surge to a surprising third place in some polls, ahead of the far-right’s Marine Le Pen.  

Le Pen, 43, took the reins of the National Front (FN) from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen last year and has been hoping for a repeat of his stunning 2002 showing when he defeated Socialist Lionel Jospin in the first round before losing to Jacques Chirac in the second.

Wooing their voters, and those of centrist Francois Bayrou who is polling at around 10 percent, will be key for Hollande and Sarkozy as they head into the two-week head-to-head campaign for the second round.

With France reeling from the eurozone debt crisis and unemployment recently hitting a 12-year high, the economy and public finances have topped the list of voters’ concerns during the campaign.

Hollande, a long-time Socialist Party leader who won a US-style primary last year, only emerged after the frontrunner for the nomination, the then IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was embroiled in scandal after a Manhattan hotel maid accused him of sexual assault. The charges were later dropped.

A moderate decried by critics during the primary as “wishy-washy”, Hollande has vowed to balance France’s budget by 2017 while boosting taxes on the rich, increasing spending and creating thousands of state jobs.

He has scored populist points by declaring the world of finance his “enemy”, vowing a 75-percent tax bracket for incomes over a million euros and promising to re-negotiate the EU’s fiscal austerity pact to focus on growth.

In a speech to thousands of supporters in working-class eastern Paris on Sunday, Hollande declared himself the saviour of the “French dream”.  

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

Sarkozy has hit back with predictions that a Socialist victory will spark a “massive crisis of confidence” among investors and a speculative run on the euro.

Speaking to supporters at his own massive Paris rally on Sunday, Sarkozy suggested the Socialists were out of touch with the modern world and urged the “silent majority” to back him.

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

Sarkozy has played up his experience in the campaign, saying the economic crisis would have been far worse without his reforms and portraying himself as a world-class statesman.

He swung to the right with calls to limit immigration and tirades against “multiculturalism”, and focused on security issues – his efforts given a boost by his handling of last month’s shootings by an Islamist extremist in southern France.

His aides have said the first round is crucial for Sarkozy and that a win, along with the chance to face Hollande one-on-one, could give him the momentum to score an upset.

The polls are giving them little comfort however, with a recent CSA poll

showing Hollande scoring a thumping first-round victory with 29 percent to Sarkozy’s 24 percent, and then sweeping the second round with 58 percent.

Other polls have shown the two frontrunners about even with 27 to 28 percent each, but poll after poll has shown Sarkozy losing in the second round.

About 45 million people are registered to vote but pollsters say the campaign has failed to capture voters’ imagination and are predicting a low turnout.

An OpinionWay poll released Wednesday showed that 26 percent of potential voters planned to stay home during the first round, up from 16 percent during the first round in 2007.

Polls will open at 0600 GMT on Sunday and close at 1800 GMT, when the first result predictions are expected.

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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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