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Sarkozy defensive in first French presidential debate

Nicolas Sarkozy was forced onto the defensive on Thursday over his legal woes in the first debate of right-wing rivals for the French presidency, including the man tipped to lead the country, Alain Juppe.

Sarkozy defensive in first French presidential debate
Nicolas Sarkozy during Thusrday's debate. Photo: AFP

Former president Sarkozy is trailing ex-prime minister Juppe, 71, in the race for the right-wing nomination, to be decided in a highly anticipated November primary that is expected to produce the next president of France.

With the jihadist threat uppermost in voters' minds following a series of deadly attacks, the primary campaign has tipped over into populism, with Sarkozy particularly accused of chasing after far-right National Front (FN) voters.

But compared with the vitriolic exchanges between US presidential rivals Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump the tone of the first televized debate among the seven right-wing candidates was respectful.

Sarkozy, 61, nonetheless found himself on the defensive over the various investigations in which he has been entangled since losing his 2012 re-election bid.

“After 37 years in politics my criminal record is clean,” he insisted, visibly exasperated.

“Do you think I would take part in this campaign if I had anything on my conscience?” he added, claiming he had been hounded by investigators and subjected to “slander” during probes for influence-peddling and suspected illegal funding of his failed 2012 re-election campaign, among others.

Thursday's debate was the first of three among the candidates for the November 20th-27th primary, the winner of which is expected to go head-to-head with FN leader Marine Le Pen in the second round of the election in May.

The former leader of Sarkozy's Republicans party, Jean-Francois Cope, said he had hoped Sarkozy would be a reformer when he came to power in 2007 on a promise to shake up the established order.

“Ten years ago, I and millions of French people hoped for the change that Nicolas Sarkozy offered for our country.

“That change unfortunately never took place,” he said, accusing Sarkozy of ducking the hard choices.

Sarkozy argued his hand had been constrained by “the worst (economic) crisis the world had experienced since 1929” and vowed “strong, energetic” leadership if he returned to power after five years of Socialist rule.

Sarkozy has campaigned on a populist platform of protecting French national identity, curbing immigration and giving the “silent majority” more of a say in politics by holding referendums on divisive issues.

On Thursday he reiterated his pledge to jailing hundreds of suspected Islamist radicals, without prior authorization from a judge and ban the Islamic burkini swimsuit.

Juppe, who has accused him of “giving the FN a leg up”, has taken a more moderate, inclusive line.

“I want to lead you along a path of hope,” the long-time Bordeaux mayor said.

Polls show Juppe leading Sarkozy by between eight and 14 percentage points, with the five other candidates, including Cope and Sarkozy's former prime minister Francois Fillon trailing behind.

'Can't rewrite history'

But Juppe too faced questions about scandals in their past. In 2004 he was given a 14-month suspended term and barred from holding elected office for a year over a party funding scandal in which he was widely seen as the fall guy for his mentor, former president Jacques Chirac.

“Everyone knows about my conviction, we can't rewrite history,” Juppe said.

“It is up to the voters to decide if that disqualifies me.”

The debate was the first of three before the first round of the primary on November 20th.

The two top vote-getters will then debate one-on-one before the November 27th run-off.

All seven right-wing candidates gave job creation and relaxing France's notoriously inflexible labour laws as a top priority.

Stubbornly high unemployment has been a scourge of Socialist President Francois Hollande, who has conditioned his re-election bid on achieving a “credible” fall in joblessness.

The deeply unpopular president will only announce in December whether he will stand for a second term.

Polls show the Socialist candidate being eliminated in the first round of voting, coming in after the conservative candidate and Le Pen.

In the final duel against the far-right leader, the conservative candidate is expected to come up trumps.

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DISCOVER FRANCE

Inside Brégançon: The French presidential Riviera holiday home

If you're expecting to see French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris over the summer you're likely to be disappointed - he and his wife Brigitte are at Brégançon, the official Riviera 'holiday home' of the presidents of France.

Inside Brégançon: The French presidential Riviera holiday home

The Fort of Brégançon, which stands on a rock 30 metres above the sea, has been offering privacy and sunshine to French presidents for decades, although its history goes back much further than that.

The fort is perched on a tiny island – just 4.5km long – connected to the French mainland by a causeway and has been a strategic site since the 6th century, acting as a seigneurial residence, a Crown estate property and a military site equipped with artillery including 23 cannons under Napoleon Bonaparte.

It was Charles de Gaulle who gave it the status of official presidential residence in 1968 and it’s usually used for presidential holidays – similar to Camp David in the USA and Chequers in the UK.

It has since been transformed into a pleasant residence while maintaining what remained of the ancient fortress, giving presidents the opportunity to take advantage of the sunshine of the Riviera.

French presidents have their main residence and offices in the Elysée Palace, the beautiful 18th century residence in the heart of Paris. In addition to Brégançon, presidents also have the use of La Lanterne, a former hunting lodge in the grounds of Versailles, and although they can’t stay in the sumptuous Palace of Versailles they do sometimes hold events and meeting with foreign dignitaries there.

It’s Brégançon’s offshore location that was the key for De Gaulle, who considered it the only place in the south of France secure enough to receive foreign heads of state, particularly from Mediterranean countries in the geopolitical context of decolonisation. 

While it remains secure, it is these days within long-lens range for photographers, as several presidents have discovered. 

But through the years of the Fifth Republic, French presidents have had quite varying attitudes to this undoubted perk of the job.

De Gaulle’s successor Georges Pompidou seemed to love it and spent his weekends in the Fort both in summers and winters. He opened its doors to the media, letting himself be photographed with his spouse in more relaxed clothing and playing pétanque with his bodyguards.

Georges Pompidou and his wife Claude in August 1969 pose in the gardens during their summer holiday. Photo by AFP

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who regularly stayed there with his family, brought the national spotlight on the Fort by letting paparazzi venture around the residence, snapping pictures of him in swimsuit and tennis shoes, but also installing CCTV inside the residence.

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing poses for photos with his wife Anne-Aymone in 1979. Photo by AFP

When socialist François Mitterrand won the election, he declared: “the Republic doesn’t need a secondary residence.”

He limited his visits to work meeting – the SNCF strikers in 1987 and two heads of state the Irish Prime Minister Garret Fitzgerald and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl – although he took no steps to sell off Brégancon. 

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was hosted by François Mitterand in August 1985. Photo by PIERRE CIOT / AFP

His successor Jacques Chirac particularly appreciated the fort because of its location in the Var département where he lived as a child.

With his spouse Bernadette, they regularly attend mass at the local church and greeted residents and tourists. In 2004, the President received Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to appease tensions. The Brégançon presidential desk was photographed for the first time.

Jacques Chirac and Brigitte leaving the local church in May 1999 Photo by VANINA LUCCHESI / AFP

During his presidency Nicolas Sarkozy received foreign politicians including Condoleezza Rice, but also took some time to exercise. The pictures of him jogging around the Fort were described as creating a new style of presidential communication. Later, he was photographed on the beach with first lady Carla Bruni during her pregnancy.

Nicolas Sarkozy jogging, followed by his bodyguards on bikes. Photo by GERARD JULIEN / AFP

François Hollande, who branded himself as a “normal president” felt no particular attachment to the Fort and opened the site to the public for visits, although he did host some work meetings there.

A rather formal looking Francois Hollande meets with his Prime Minister Manuel Valls at Brégançon. Photo by BERTRAND LANGLOIS / POOL / AFP

Since being elected in 2017 Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron seem to have enjoyed the Fort, retreating there during the summers and being photographed on the beach or having fun on jet-skis – they also installed a swimming pool which cost €34,000.

Brigitte Macron owns a property in the northern French seaside resort of Le Touquet, which the couple use for family time. But Emmanuel Macron has also used the Fort for work, hosting British Prime Minister Theresa May in August 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin in August 2019, on the eve of the G7 in Biarritz, and Chancellor Angela Merkel in summer 2020. 

Emmanuel Macron welcomes German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Bregancon in August 2020. Photo by Christophe SIMON / POOL / AFP

This year he declared that he would be having a “pause studieuse” at Brégançon and use the summer to think about how to tackle some of France’s most pressings issues.

With a cost of living crisis, war in Europe and political turmoil at home, let’s hope that his beach reading bears fruit.

By Julie Edde

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