/ 24 April 2012

French opponents lock horns in tense run-off

French Opponents Lock Horns In Tense Run Off

France’s presidential candidates came out fighting with accusation and counter accusation on Monday, setting the tone for a final election that promises to be as tetchy as it is tightly contested.

Shortly after the final scores for the first round were published, the two frontrunners, Socialist François Hollande and the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, were back on the campaign trail attempting to drum up the support that will give them victory in two weeks.

It was just hours into the morning after the night before when Sarkozy, trailing after the first-round vote, challenged Hollande to three public debates. The runoff candidates usually have one.

When Hollande turned down the offer, Sarkozy’s team accused the socialist of running scared. “The French have the right to several debates because there are numerous subjects,” said Sarkozy’s spokesperson, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet. “He’s scared.”

Hollande’s team responded by saying Sarkozy’s offer was a childish “whim” and an attempt at manipulation. His spokesperson, Pierre Moscovici, said Hollande refused to be dictated to by a man who would go down in history as the only outgoing president not to lead after the first-round vote.

Talking at the Socialist party headquarters, where there was an undercurrent of optimism, Moscovici said: “Just because he’s got a bad result he now wants three debates. It’s the whim of a naughty pupil, someone who didn’t get the score he expected. He never wanted that before. And he’s trying to make out François Hollande is afraid. The debate — there will be one of them — will be a big debate and we hope it will answer the questions that concern the French.”

‘No credibility’
Moscovici added: “We’re not going to take any lessons from Nicolas Sarkozy. He has no credibility. He’s not in a position to impose anything on François Hollande.”

Asked if Hollande had underestimated the anger in the country that led to nearly 18% of voters choosing Marine Le Pen of the far-right Front National, the Socialist party spokesperson, Benoît Hamon, said: “Nicolas Sarkozy has broken all his promises and engagements and that’s why there’s such a strong FN vote.”

The final scores for the first round showed a smaller gap between Hollande and Sarkozy than first reported but were still historic.

It was the first time an outgoing president had been beaten by a challenger in the first round.

Hollande scored 28.63% and Sarkozy 27.18%. Both candidates will now try to win over voters from the other eight candidates, particularly Le Pen, who scored 17.9%, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of the Front de Gauche, who polled 11.11%, centrist François Bayrou of MoDem, who scored 9.13% and Eva Joly, of the Europe Green party, who scored 2.31%. The remaining candidates represent about 3.75%, but there is also just under 20% of the French electorate who abstained from voting on Sunday.

On Monday morning Hollande gathered his campaign team together to discuss strategy for the next fortnight.

Afterwards he travelled to Brittany, where he was due to visit Quimper and Lorient. The choice of Brittany was symbolic. It was in Lorient in June 2009, nine months after quitting as first secretary of the Socialist party, that Hollande launched his bid for the Elysée with his “post-crisis contract” and call for a socialist candidate who would return to the left’s roots.

Alienating supporters
Sarkozy travelled to a farm in the Indre-et-Loire department before holding a meeting in Touraine in the centre west of France.

Sarkozy is between a rock and a hard place. If he moves any further to the right to attract Le Pen voters he will alienate supporters of centrist Bayrou, yet they are the only two places he can pick up the votes to win.

Le Pen’s director of campaign, Florian Philippot, rejected any horse-trading between the FN and Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party between now and the second-round vote. “We’re not into compromises and little political deals,” he said.

At Monday night’s meeting Sarkozy told supporters he respected those who had voted for Le Pen. “We have heard you,” he said, adding that the left wanted to “deny and ignore” this vote.

Sarkozy has also announced he is organising a major May Day rally, hijacking the left’s traditional Labour Day.

“May 1, we will organise a celebration of work, but a celebration of real work, of those who work hard, those who are threatened, who suffer, who want an end to the situation that when someone doesn’t work they can earn more than when they work,” he said. “There will be a very big rally on May 1 around work, and we will really defend work. Not status, work.”

Martine Aubrey, head of the Socialist party, said four out of five French voters had said “non” to Sarkozy. She said: “I believe the French said clearly yesterday that they want a political change, a change of president.” —