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Scandals hurt Sarkozy re-election hopes

French president is facing scrutiny on domestic policies and foreign affairs, while aides tainted by corruption investigations could be his Achilles heel.

Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a speech to workers at the French solar panel maker PhotoWatt in Bourgoin-Jallieu, France, on Tuesday. The French president is seeking a second term in elections starting on April 22.
Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a speech to workers at the French solar panel maker PhotoWatt in Bourgoin-Jallieu, France, on Tuesday. The French president is seeking a second term in elections starting on April 22.

PARIS // With just two months to go before France elects its next president, Nicolas Sarkozy is grappling with domestic and international obstacles that threaten his chances of winning a second term.

Mr Sarkozy launched a Twitter account yesterday and was due to appear on peak-time television last night in what was billed as the formal launch of his campaign.

Although he knows French voters are likely to decide the election chiefly on domestic issues, a strong weapon in the struggle to confound opinion polls and beat his socialist opponent François Hollande has been his prominent world profile. This contrasts sharply with his rival's inexperience.

But as problems at home continue to mount, most dramatically with the corruption charges levelled against a key former minister last week, the president has found his record on foreign affairs under scrutiny, too.

Despite Greece's reluctant adoption, amid street disturbances, of deep austerity measures as the price of another bailout, financial analysts remain sceptical about the Franco-German plan to save the euro.

Continuing financial instability could turn the promise of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to support the Sarkozy campaign into a poisoned chalice. Mr Hollande vows to renegotiate the terms of the deal for which Mr Sarkozy and Mrs Merkel obtained the support of other euro nations.

Mr Sarkozy can claim that after his government's shaky start over Tunisia, he has shown robust leadership on the Arab Spring, notably in his early backing for the revolt that brought down Muammar Qaddafi and in his criticism of Bashar Al Assad's violent response to Syrian protest.

But in other matters concerning events overseas, he has been less successful in impressing voters.

One scandal that refuses to go away concerns a bombing that killed 11 French construction workers in Karachi in 2002. Originally blamed on Al Qaeda, the attack is believed by French investigating magistrates to have been a reprisal for a French decision to halt commissions on arms sales to Pakistan.

Two men close to Mr Sarkozy have been implicated in a judicial investigation into kickbacks. Both deny any connection to money that allegedly helped pay for the unsuccessful 1995 presidential campaign of Edouard Balladur, for whom Mr Sarkozy was spokesman. Last month, the French news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur described the affair as the president's "Achilles' heel".

There has also been a mixed reception to votes in the French parliament, enthusiastically backed by Mr Sarkozy, to introduce criminal sanctions for denying that Turkey committed genocide against Armenians in 1915.

Dissenting senators, alarmed at the implications for freedom of expression, have forced a review by France's constitutional council after Turkey threatened economic and political retaliation. Even the president's foreign minister, Alain Juppé, described the law as "inappropriate".

Mr Sarkozy's critics accuse him of running a high-risk strategy to appeal to voters tempted by the simplistic message of the Front Nationalist leader Marine Le Pen, generally seen as anti-Islam.

In an interview with Le Figaro's magazine, Mr Sarkozy spoke of plans for a referendum to speed the process for expelling illegal immigrants and toughen rules for the unemployed. To his opponents, all this reflects a desire to show a hard line on immigration and Muslim issues.

Ms Le Pen trails both Mr Sarkozy and Mr Hollande in opinion polls, although her support, measured at up to 20 per cent, could be critical in a May run-off between the two first-round leaders.

But Mr Sarkozy cannot place great reliance on her supporters switching allegiance to him once she has been eliminated. A survey by the Harris Interactive polling institute put Mr Hollande on 28 points, four ahead of Mr Sarkozy, for the April 22 first round, but reinforces the findings of a separate poll suggesting the gap would widen if they faced each other in the decider.

Following France's humiliating loss of its triple A credit rating last month, Mr Sarkozy and supporters have poured scorn on the "tax and spend" policies of Mr Hollande.

The budget minister, Valerie Pécresse, said the absence of a single word on spending restraint meant the socialists were "putting the credibility of France in peril".

But the president desperately needs some good news, especially on the home economic front, as polling day approaches.

The last thing he needed was this week's decision by judges to charge Eric Woerth, his former budget minister and treasurer of Mr Sarkozy's centre-right UMP party, with using improper influence to secure France's highest award, the Legion of Honour, for the financial adviser of Liliane Bettencourt, France's richest woman.

The adviser, Patrice de Maistre, is alleged to have helped Mr Woerth's wife obtain a job managing the heiress's fortune.

The judges followed this action by charging Mr Woerth with accepting illegal cash donations from Mr de Maistre, originating from Mrs Bettencourt.

Mr Sarkozy is immune from prosecution while in office and, in any case, vehemently denies wrongdoing, as does Mr Woerth.


* Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse