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ELECTION

Sarkozy in last minute dash to woo voters

Nicolas Sarkozy made a last-gasp bid to woo voters Friday, the last campaign day before the crucial first-round French presidential vote that Socialist rival Francois Hollande is tipped to win.

Sarkozy in last minute dash to woo voters

Incumbent Sarkozy began the day apologising for the perceived mistakes of his time in office since 2007, while polls said main rival Socialist Hollande was increasingly tipped for victory on Sunday and in a May 6 run-off.

Both candidates were to stage final rallies on Friday at opposite ends of the country, Sarkozy in southern city Nice and Hollande in the impoverished northern Ardennes region, both traditional right-wing bastions.

“I’ve come to this region that placed its trust in Nicolas Sarkozy” when he visited during the last election in 2007, Hollande said ahead of his final rally in Charleville-Mezieres.

“(Sarkozy) even came to the Ardennes to make a speech about workers, jobs, industry. Everyone can see how great the disappointment is,” Hollande lamented.

Sarkozy has struggled to play up the reforms of his presidency, hit hard by the global economic downturn, and has been dogged by criticism that his flashy and overbearing style lowered the standing of France’s head of state.

“Perhaps the mistake I made at the start of my mandate is not understanding the symbolic dimension of the president’s role and not being solemn enough in my acts,” a contrite Sarkozy told RTL radio.

“A mistake for which I would like to apologise or explain myself and which I will not make again,” he said, insisting: “Now, I know the job.”

The vote is seen by many as a referendum on the unpopular Sarkozy, who feted tycoons and married supermodel Carla Bruni during his five-year term, rather than a chance to choose France’s first Socialist president since 1995.

The latest survey before campaigning and opinion polls were to be banned at midnight on Friday said Hollande would win 29 percent of votes to Sarkozy’s 25.5 percent before the pair meet head-on in the second round.

Hollande is on course to win the final vote with 56 percent to the right-winger’s 44 percent, polling organisation IPSOS forecast.

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen could take 16 percent in the first round, the far-left’s Jean-Luc Melenchon 14 percent and centrist Francois Bayrou 10 percent, IPSOS said.

However, a poll from TNS Sofres said the two men would each score 27 percent of votes on Sunday.

“In any case, Nicolas Sarkozy doesn’t believe in opinion polls,” said his spokeswoman Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet. “He feels that they do not reflect the reality of this campaign.”

Guillaume Peltier, another Sarkozy spokesman, said 12 million voters were still undecided: “Given the large number of undecided voters and the volatility of vote intentions, the only thing that’s certain is uncertainty.”

But pro-Sarkozy newspaper Le Figaro admitted that “confidence has swept into Francois Hollande’s camp” where “the candidate is having difficulty concealing his optimism”, to the point of denigrating potential second-round allies.

Amid speculation that he could reach out to Melenchon or Bayrou to ensure his victory in the run-off, Hollande has said there would be no between-round deals, such as tapping a prime minister from among his rivals.

“There is no place in a presidential election for negotiations between parties. No bartering, no concessions, no exchanges,” Hollande said.

Hollande’s campaign chief Pierre Moscovici said that voters had a “powerful and tranquil expectation of change” and those backing other left-wing candidates in the first round would end up voting Hollande.

“Hollande will become the candidate of the Socialist Party and of its allies: he will be the candidate of the left and of change,” Moscovici told Le Parisien newspaper.

Sarkozy was briefly buoyed by security fears in the wake of last month’s Al-Qaeda-inspired killings in Toulouse and has vowed to cut immigration, but the economy has been the overwhelming issue throughout the campaign.

With almost 10 percent unemployment, the eurozone debt crisis has shaken the economy and French citizens’ purchasing power is diminishing.

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SARKOZY

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.

SEE ALSO: Sarkozy accused of racism after 'monkey' comment

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