Leaders Sarkozy and Juppé stumble in race for Elysée

Right-wing candidates for the French presidential election face off in the first round of a US-style primary on Sunday with former president Nicolas Sarkozy and ex-prime minister Alain Juppe fighting to avoid being knocked out by an outsider.

Leaders Sarkozy and Juppé stumble in race for Elysée
Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy. Photo: AFP

In a contest overshadowed by the election of Donald Trump in the United States, support for the early favourite Juppe has slipped and Francois Fillon, who served as prime minister under Sarkozy, has risen fast.

The right-wing nominating contest is crucial because with the French left divided, the winner is expected to go on to take the presidency in May, beating far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the runoff.

Juppe, 71, entered the two-month-long contest with polls showing him to be France's most popular politician, but his approach of playing the moderate against the fiery Sarkozy and the conservative Fillon appears to be backfiring.

Most polls now show Juppe and Sarkozy are neck-and-neck at around 30 percent, with Fillon close behind after making striking progress in recent weeks.

The two winners on Sunday will go through to the second round run-off a week later.

Two becomes three

“We were expecting a duel but in the end a three-way contest has emerged,” political scientist Jerome Jaffre said in Le Figaro newspaper on Thursday.

Many have noted that 62-year-old Fillon's rise had coincided with the publication of his latest book entitled “Beating Islamic totalitarianism”.

An often confused final TV debate of the seven candidates on Thursday offered few clues about the possible outcome, although viewers polled afterwards said Fillon had performed the strongest.

Sparks flew when Sarkozy was asked about fresh claims that he received millions in funding from the late Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi towards his 2007 campaign.

Sarkozy called the question “disgraceful” and refused to answer.

Turning to the Trump effect, the former president said a more isolationist America created “a fantastic opportunity for France and Europe to re-establish a leadership role” on issues including border security and the reform of the UN Security Council.

“The next five years will mark the return of France and Europe to the international scene. America won't be there to put us in the shade,” he said.

Juppe meanwhile said the Trump-era heralded a triple “shock” — in the areas of trade, defence and the environment.

A return to protectionism would be “a tremendous regression”, Juppe said, while warning Europe against being “naive” in its dealings with the United States.

The three leading candidates have similar programmes, underpinned by pledges to reinforce domestic security in a country still under a state of emergency following a series of jihadist attacks.

They also share a desire to reinforce European borders and reduce immigration, while tax cuts also loom large.

The choice will come down to style.

Sarkozy has emphasised his tough-guy credentials, saying it makes him a better choice to handle Trump than the mild-mannered Juppe.

Fillon, who is popular in the business world, has promised “radical” economic measures but is the most conservative of the three on social issues.

Another unknown factor in Sunday's first round is the number of left-wing voters prepared to pay two euros and sign a declaration that they subscribe to “the values of the centre and the right” to vote in the right-wing primary.

Those who do are expected to vote against 61-year-old Sarkozy, who remains a highly divisive figure in France four years after he left office.

When the right-wing candidate is chosen on November 27, it is expected to trigger an announcement from deeply unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande on whether he intends to bid for re-election.

On Wednesday, Hollande's former economy minister Emmanuel Macron announced he would stand as an independent.

by AFP's Guy Jackson

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Sarkozy’s ex-wife talks of regret, scolding Gaddafi

She's been locked in a room with Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi, at whom she then proceeded to hurl abuse, and she has life-long regrets for deserting her former husband Nicolas Sarkozy in his hour of need. This week Cecilia Attias, our French Face of the Week, opened up about her "Desire for Truth".

Sarkozy's ex-wife talks of regret, scolding Gaddafi
Photo: Damien Meyer/AFP

Who is Cecilia Attias?

She is the 55-year-old ex-wife of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Why is she in the news this week?

Attias has been pushing her new tell-all autobiography, “A Desire for the Truth” (Un Envie de Verité). Journalists, political  junkies and gossip-mongers have been drooling over the prospect of the book since it was announced last month.

This week, the woman who famously first met Sarkozy in 1984, when as mayor of her town, he officiated at her marriage to Jacques Martin, gave a few teasers in a blockbuster interview with Elle magazine and extracts published in Le Point.

Any decent stories?

Well, it’s not out on general release until next Wednesday, but Le Point published excerpts in its print edition on Thursday, and there are certainly a few juicy morsels in there.

‘Overcoming’ Gaddafi

Attias recounts the time she screamed at Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, on a mission to persuade him to free five nurses and one doctor tortured into admitting they had infected Liyan children with HIV.

After travelling from the airport in Tripoli “without security guards,” and in a car which blocked mobile phone signals, she was led to a room in a bunker, and “heard the door locking behind me.”

“Strangely, I wasn’t scared,” she claims in the book, but that didn’t stop her from launching into a tirade against Gaddafi.

“’Do you have any idea the way you’ve allowed me to be treated?’” she asked him, adding “’I’ll thank you not to come any closer to me!’”

“’If something were to happen to me here, just know that you’d have to answer to the whole international community. And I don’t think you want that,’” she calmly informed him.

“Creating a balance of power,” she reflects, “surprising him, taking control of the game – that was the only way to overcome a man like that.”

Meeting the man she left Sarkozy for

She met her future husband, Moroccan businessman Richard Attias in October 2004 in Paris.

In the way that wealthy and highly-organized people often do, in order to allow the rest of us to “relate,” she makes a point in the book of mentioning her humble and “messy appearance” at their first encounter.

“I was in jeans, accompanied by a little boy [her son] running around everywhere in pyjamas,” she notes wryly.

Her first impression of Attias? “He embodied a world completely opposed to the one I was trying to get away from at the time – where deceitful superficiality reigns, words are spoken hastily, and people rush to judgment.”

It was revealed (much later), that Cecilia ran away to New York with Attias in 2005, but later returned to try to make her marriage with Sarkozy work.

It didn’t, and she divorced him shortly after he became president, but not before two incidents that shocked observers in France.

"I wasn't there for the person who so badly needed me – Nicolas." Photo: Jack Guez/AFP

‘I should have voted, but I couldn’t’

Firstly, there was her somewhat unbelievable failure to even vote for her husband in the second round run-off against Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal in 2007.

“You don’t understand what it meant to vote [in that scenario],” she told Elle magazine this week.

“When you’re the wife of a future head of state, photographers stalk you like an animal. And, as happens to a lot of people, at the time I was in the process of asking myself if I still wanted us to be a couple,” she added.

“So I was just too ill to put up with people looking at me [voting]. I should have, but I couldn’t.”

‘I wasn’t there for the person who so badly needed me’

Despite Attias’s abstention from voting, Sarkozy won, and a huge party was organized at the famous Champs Elysées restaurant Fouquet's on May 6th, the now infamous night which marks her second strange decision.

With Sarkozy waiting at the restaurant, surrounded by “directors of large companies, press barons, journalists, show-biz stars, and senior civil servants,” Attias decided to sit at home for hours.

“I asked myself what I was going to do there, all the while repeating to myself that I have to go. I was lost, incapable of ordering my thoughts,” she adds.

In the end, she made it to the restaurant, but very late. “I wasn’t there to support the person who so badly needed me: Nicolas… Even today, I still regret it,” she writes.

Elsewhere in the book, Attias blames Sarkozy’s “impulsiveness” for his election loss in 2012, and slams her “friends” who tried to seduce him following their divorce, saying: “Some people will do anything for power and money.”

What has she been up to in the last few years?

Attias married Richard at the Rockefeller Center in New York in 2008, not long after Sarkozy took office.

The same year, she founded the Cecilia Attias Foundation for Women, a non-profit mostly dedicated to promoting and improving the lives of women in the developing world.

She lives in the US with her teenage son Louis Sarkozy, and her husband Richard Attias, who runs a successful events company.

The Local's French Face of the Week is a person in the news who – for good or ill – has revealed something interesting about the country. Being selected as French Face of the Week is not necessarily an endorsement.

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