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Sarkozy calls Hollande ‘liar’ in bitter TV debate

Nicolas Sarkozy made a last-ditch effort to revive his struggling re-election bid Wednesday, branding Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande a "liar" in the campaign's only live television

Sarkozy calls Hollande 'liar' in bitter TV debate

Both men came out in determined mood as the debate kicked off, with Hollande accusing Sarkozy of dividing the French and vowing that if he wins on Sunday he would be a “president who brings people together”.

“I will be a president of justice because we are going through a difficult crisis, a serious crisis that hits the most humble among us, so I want justice to be at the heart of the republic,” Hollande said.

Sarkozy said voters were facing a “historic choice” and: “France cannot make a mistake – we are not in a crisis, we are in many crises.”

Polls show Hollande, 57, is the favourite to win in Sunday’s run-off vote after he came out ahead of Sarkozy in an April 22 first round that left eight
other candidates behind.  

The debate turned quickly to the economy, with tensions rising as the two candidates sought to speak over each other.

“Our unemployment has risen, our competitiveness has worsened and Germany is doing better than we are,” Hollande said, slamming Sarkozy’s economic record.

“Why is Germany doing better than us? Because Germany has done the opposite of the policies you are proposing to the French people,” Sarkozy hit back.  

“With you it’s very simple. Nothing is ever your fault. Whatever happens you’re happy.” Hollande said, as the debate became heated and Sarkozy accused Hollande repeatedly of “lying” and “slander”.

Sarkozy is struggling to overcome the lowest popularity ratings of any sitting French president and is the first-ever incumbent to have lost in the first round.

The French left has not won a presidential election in a quarter of a century, but fears over low economic growth, rising joblessness and European Union-imposed austerity have given the Socialists a boost.

Many voters also disapprove of Sarkozy’s flashy style during his five-year term and have welcomed the Hollande’s vows to be a “normal president”.

Sarkozy has derided Hollande’s traditional tax-and-spend programme as potentially catastrophic for the economy, warning that a Socialist win would cause panic on the financial markets and spark economic chaos.

The latest poll by IFOP released Wednesday showed Hollande ahead with 54 percent of votes to 46 percent for Sarkozy.

In the days since the first round Sarkozy, also 57, has sought to woo the nearly 18 percent of voters who backed Marine Le Pen of the anti-immigrant National Front — a record result for the far right.

Sarkozy has vowed to “defend the French way of life”, drastically reduce immigration and secure France’s borders, but Le Pen dashed his hopes of an endorsement on Tuesday saying she would cast a blank ballot on Sunday.

Wednesday’s IFOP poll showed 43 percent of Le Pen’s first-round backers planned to vote for Sarkozy but that 39 percent were undecided.

The debate came after Sarkozy staged a huge election rally on Tuesday to rival France’s traditional May Day show of force by the left, with organisers claiming about 200,000 rallied at the Trocadero in Paris’s posh 16th district.

Sarkozy, generally seen as a more aggressive debater than Hollande, had urged his opponent to hold three debates before the second round, but the Socialist said the traditional one would be enough.

The debate, broadcast live by several channels, was meticulously prepared, with the smallest of details worked out in advance.

The two candidates faced each other in chairs across a table, exactly 2.5 metres (8.2 feet) apart, separated by two moderators, with clocks ticking away their speaking time.

Both men wore simple dark suits and dark ties. The temperature in the room was set at 19 degrees Celsius (66.2 degrees Fahrenheit), with each of the debaters even given personal air conditioners.

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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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