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Sarkozy hits trail to fuel French passions

In the lead-up to the European parliamentary elections, the debate in France has been lively, with President Sarkozy at the forefront.

There is nothing like an election to whip up a bit of Gallic passion, not to mention mudslinging. While much of the rest of the continent might be sleepwalking towards the European parliament elections, France, arguably the most actively pro-EU nation, is taking it all rather more seriously.

True, many voters on Sunday will be voting on national issues and delivering their verdict on the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, but at least the French are discussing European issues, if to the point of being rude to each other about them. A spat broke out last month between Rachida Dati, the justice minister, and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the veteran Green leader who has sat as an MEP, at different times representing both France and Germany.

The two are rivals in the same Île de France constituency, and Mr Cohn-Bendit has suggested that Ms Dati would simply not bother to go to Strasbourg for European parliament meetings if elected. "Rachida Dati will go to the European parliament? My eye, my eye!" he said in a radio interview. "To get stuck with committees, to get stuck in a place where there are no cameras. Don't make me laugh." Mr Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) demanded an apology, while Ms Dati snorted: "I understand that a man of the past would seek to come out from the shadows. I ignore those like Daniel Cohn-Bendit because, in five years in the European parliament, he has not achieved any results."

Two such high-profile candidates going at it hammer and tongs in such a public way is not something you see in most other countries during a Euro election. And unlike, say, Gordon Brown across the Channel, Mr Sarkozy himself is spearheading the election campaign with relish. Campaigning is one of the things the French president likes best. "He rants, complains, praises, spouts polemics, speaks of 'a beautiful France' in the heart of Europe and evokes the era of Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle," observed Der Spiegel after the president addressed an election rally in Nîmes. "Sarkozy is back - not as the head of state, not as president, but as the election campaigner in perpetual motion."

The obvious pleasure the French president derives from campaigning, though, is not the only reason for his being out on the stump. Mr Sarkozy is simply not as popular as he once was with many sections of French society. His conservative reform programme has upset everyone from judges and doctors to prison officers and, inevitably, the unions. There have been protest marches, wildcat strikes, company bosses being taken hostage by workers and even occasional acts of industrial sabotage, prompting Dominique de Villepin, a former prime minister, to speak of France being on "the eve of a revolution".

Even so, the opinion polls are still running in Mr Sarkozy's favour, at the expense of Martine Aubry and her opposition Socialist Party. This is Ms Aubry's first electoral test since becoming the socialist leader. "If she does much less well than the party's dream score from last time (29 per cent of the vote), 'comrades' in search for revenge will make sure to question her legitimacy," says Le Point, the weekly news magazine. The Socialist Party is currently polling at about 24 per cent.

Perhaps, though, the real battles will involve the smaller parties on the far Left, the far Right and the Greens. When they are not squabbling among themselves, they have real power to divert votes from both the UMP and Socialists. Additionally, Mr Sarkozy cannot be that happy with the performance of Bernard Kouchner, his foreign minister and formerly a member of the Socialist Party. Mr Kouchner hesitated before backing Michael Barnier, the UMP agriculture minister, in his attempt to become an MEP. Even when he did, Mr Kouchner's endorsement was scarcely a ringing one, prompting a Socialist candidate to compare it to "a salesman who hesitates to accompany you in the car he has sold you".

It has provided great fun for the political media but what does the homme in the street make of it all? Jonny Dymond, a BBC reporter based in Brussels who is engaged on an election tour across the continent, says: "There is always something of a paradox about France and the EU. If you listen to French leaders - local, regional or national - the EU is France's destiny. After all, was it not a French creation? Does the European flag not flutter from tens of thousands of town halls across the land?

"But if you talk to French citizens of all classes and ages, there are doubts, hesitations and questions about the EU that reflect French insecurity about both the direction of the EU and France's place within it. "There is nothing like the angry scepticism you find in Britain. But there is genuine mystification about how what was once a cosy, pretty much French-led club is now a sprawling organisation with 27 members, where France has to work hard to get herself heard."

dsapsted@thenational.ae

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