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ELECTION

Sarkozy prepares for make-or-break TV debate

Nicolas Sarkozy will make a last-ditch bid on Wednesday to turn the tide against Socialist Francois Hollande when they go head to head in the French presidential election's one and only television debate.

The duel comes a day after Sarkozy staged a huge rally to rival France’s traditional May Day show of force by the left and after National Front leader Marine Le Pen scornfully rejected his bid to woo her far-right supporters.

The president is expected to use the debate to portray his front-running rival as a dangerous left-winger whose tax-and-spend policies signal a return to 1970s socialism that will doom the already struggling French economy.

Sarkozy is generally seen as a better debater than Hollande but few expect him to be able to reverse the opinion polls that forecast the Socialist will clinch Sunday’s second round vote by around 54 percent to his 46.

Hollande will speak first in the debate to be broadcast live by several channels at 1900 GMT and which has been meticulously prepared – even down to the temperature of the studio – by media advisors of both candidates.

Hollande on Wednesday received advice from his former partner and mother of his four children, Ségolène Royal, who took on Sarkozy in 2007 when she was the Socialist candidate, in an election her right-wing opponent went on to win.

“The issue is not to let him (Sarkozy) escape his track record, because democracy is about knowing if one sticks to one’s commitments. He must not be able to sidestep his track record,” she told RTL radio.

Hollande must “above all remain himself” and must “keep this debate on an elevated plane even if (Sarkozy) tries to drag him down,” she said.

Sarkozy’s UMP party was meanwhile engaged in debate about how far it should engage with Le Pen, who got the support of 6.4 million voters in the April 22 first round of the election.

Defence Minister Gerard Longuet on Tuesday shocked many in the party when he said that Le Pen, “unlike her father” Jean-Marie, the firebrand founder of the National Front, was “someone we can speak to”.

But UMP secretary-general Jean-Francois Cope stated categorically Wednesday that there would “never be any electoral deal talks with the National Front or discussion or negotiations with the leaders of the National Front.”

Sarkozy has tilted ever further to the right since the first round in a bid to woo Le Pen supporters, vowing to “defend the French way of life”, drastically reduce immigration and secure France’s borders.

France holds elections next month for the National Assembly, where the National Front currently has no presence.

Le Pen hopes her third-place, 18 percent score in the presidential first round will translate into parliamentary seats and turn the Front into a powerful opposition party.

France’s BFM-TV news channel said Wednesday it had dropped Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s journalist wife Anne Sinclair from election night coverage because the disgraced Socialist was once more in the media spotlight.

“The serenity was gone, what with the affair kicking off again this weekend,” said BFM-TV’s boss Guillaume Dubois after the publication over the weekend of his allegation that Sarkozy orchestrated his downfall.

The ex-International Monetary Fund boss had been favoured to win the vote until May last year, when he was arrested in New York and accused of sexually assaulting hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo.

The charges were later dropped but a New York judge has ruled that he should face a civil case brought by Diallo.

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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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