Le Pen taunts Sarkozy for wooing her voters

National Front leader Marine Le Pen on Thursday mocked Nicolas Sarkozy for veering ever further to the right to woo the millions who plumped for her in round one of the French presidential vote.

Le Pen taunts Sarkozy for wooing her voters

The taunt came as Sarkozy and his front-running Socialist rival Francois Hollande prepared to take their duel to the airwaves to sell their competing plans for France if they are elected in the final round on May 6.

Le Pen, who failed to break through to the run-off but got 18 percent, or 6.4 million votes, in Sunday’s first round, said that until a few days ago Sarkozy and his “clique” had attacked her party on all fronts.

“We were xenophobes, anti-Semites, racists, national preference was a terrible shame… and all of a sudden, there is no more of that,” the 43-year-old National Front (FN) leader told RTL radio.

Sarkozy, the first sitting French president to lose a first-round vote, has tilted further to the right since Sunday, vowing to “defend the French way of life”, drastically reduce immigration and secure France’s borders.

Both he and Hollande are battling to woo the millions who plumped for Le Pen and are seen as key to winning the second round, which the latest opinion poll predicted Hollande will take with 54 percent to Sarkozy’s 46 percent.

Sarkozy on Wednesday ruled out any pact with the FN, saying he would give the party no ministerial posts if re-elected, but Hollande still accuses his rival of going too far to woo the extreme right.

The centre-left daily Le Monde agreed with that assessment, writing in a front-page editorial in its edition dated Thursday that since Sunday “the president… has crossed the line between comprehension and compromise”.

It argued that he has “adopted the language, the rhetoric and the ideas – or rather the obsessions – of Ms Le Pen”.

Polls show most far-right supporters prefer Sarkozy, but up to a quarter – mainly working-class voters attracted by Le Pen’s protectionist trade policies – could switch to Hollande.

Le Pen has said she will give her “opinion” on May 1 on whom to back, but analysts say it is unlikely she will endorse either candidate. She is hoping to capitalise on the FN’s strong showing in parliamentary elections in June.

The FN hopes to win its first seats in the national assembly since 1986, when a brief experiment with proportional representation gave it 35 members of parliament.

Millions of French were expected to take to take a ringside seat in their living rooms later Thursday as the candidates are questioned by journalists on the France 2 television channel about their programmes.

The incumbent and his Socialist rival will go head to head next Wednesday in a televised debate, but on Thursday at 1835 GMT they were to appear one after the other in a two-hour show on public television.

Sarkozy was likely to attack his opponent on his immigration policy, tax and plans to hire 60,000 teachers, and could also hit him on his promise to give non-European Union foreigners the right to vote in local elections.  

His team returned to familiar attack themes on Thursday, with Foreign Minister Alain Juppé warning that Hollande’s election might deepen Europe’s debt crisis.

Hollande accused Sarkozy of “lies” after the president said the Socialist had received the support of controversial Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, and his UMP party said Hollande had the backing of 700 mosques across France.  

Ramadan on Thursday denied making any statement to support Hollande, and the French Muslim Council (CFCM) said there had been no call to back him. 

Hollande’s campaign gained strength and credibility on Wednesday as the key plank in his economic strategy gathered increasing support in Europe.

His call for the EU fiscal pact to be renegotiated to include ways to boost growth had been derided by Sarkozy as naive and dangerous, and a breach of France’s word to its partners.

But on Wednesday, European Central Bank governor Mario Draghi called for growth initiatives and Germany’s Angela Merkel conceded new measures were needed, although neither shifted in their support for the pact.

Hollande conceded Thursday that his and Draghi’s vision of growth were not quite the same, with the central banker focusing more on “increased competition, deregulation, even privatisation”.

Sarkozy mocked Hollande’s growth plans, arguing sarcastically in a radio interview Thursday that his rival’s plans to create tens of thousands of public sector jobs would do little to boost the economy.


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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