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ELECTION

Far-right scores big as Hollande wins first round

Duelling left-right rivals Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy launched the race for the French presidential run-off on Monday, a race shaken up by the far-right's record first-round score.

Socialist Hollande and the right-wing Sarkozy are to face off in a May 6 second round, but the big surprise of Sunday’s first round was the record score for anti-immigrant, anti-EU flag-bearer Marine Le Pen.

Hollande won 28.56 percent of the vote, beating Sarkozy’s 27.07, and Le Pen won a best-ever 18.12 percent, according to near-complete interior ministry results.

Hollande told a victory rally in his rural political stronghold of Tulle late Sunday that he was the now the obvious frontrunner for the post.

“The choice is simple, either continue policies that have failed with a divisive incumbent candidate or raise France up again with a new, unifying president,” Hollande said.

Sarkozy had sought to put positive spin on the result and brandished his right-wing credentials in a clear nod to Le Pen supporters, despite being the first incumbent to lose a first round vote in modern French history.

Explaining his poor showing as the result of a first round “vote of crisis” amid global economic chaos, Sarkozy told his supporters: “These anxieties, this suffering, I know them, I understand them.”

“They are about respecting our borders, the determined fight against job relocation, controlling immigration, putting value on work, on security,” he said, hitting on a number of key right-wing themes.

A jubilant Le Pen addressed her supporters after her National Front party’s best ever showing, saying: “The battle of France has just begun … we have exploded the monopoly of the two parties” — the Socialists and Sarkozy’s UMP.

“Nothing will be as it was before … the people of France have invited themselves to the table of the elite,” she said at a remarkably triumphant rally for a candidate who went out at the first hurdle.

“I will give my opinion on May 1,” Le Pen said when asked how her supporters should vote in the second round.

The first opinion poll after the first round said that Hollande would beat Sarkozy by 54 percent to 46 in the second round and that the attitude of Le Pen’s supporters could be decisive.

Polling institute Ifop said that 48 percent of her backers would switch to Sarkozy and 31 percent to Hollande, while an OpinionWay poll said 18 percent of her supporters would back the Socialist and 39 percent Sarkozy.

The head of Sarkozy’s UMP party, Jean-Francois Cope, said he looked forward to the second round.

From Monday “we will no longer be in a case of nine candidates against Nicolas Sarkozy, but we will be one-on-one, Nicolas Sarkozy against Francois Hollande … then I think the match will be different.”

The left has not won a presidential election in a quarter of a century, but with France mired in low growth and rising joblessness, opinion polls had long predicted the left would beat the right-wing incumbent.

Hollande says Sarkozy has trapped France in a downward spiral of austerity and job losses, while Sarkozy says his rival is inexperienced and weak-willed and would spark financial panic through reckless spending pledges.

The eurozone debt crisis and France’s sluggish growth and high unemployment have hung over the campaign, with Sarkozy struggling to defend his record and Hollande unable to credibly promise spending increases.

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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