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Analysis: French presidential election campaign 2012

French presidential campaign turns nasty

Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

The French presidential campaign started to get down and dirty this week with incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy lashing out at his main rival, François Hollande, after being booed in the Basque country. There were tetchy tweets directed at far-right chief Marine Le Pen and claims that giving foreigners the vote would mean we’d all be eating halal.

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No sooner had Sarkozy officially declared himself a candidate than things started to get nasty.

His UMP party’s campaign upped a notch in the aggression stakes, with leaflets branding Hollande a liar because of alleged contradictions in his public statements, notably over just how much he wants to regulate markets and whether he hates the rich.

And his two principal attack dogs, UMP national secretary Jean-François Copé and Interior Minister Claude Guéant, rallied their troops around their chosen themes – the Hollandiste peril for Copé, immigration, Islam and law and order for Guéant.

Although it could hardly be described as breaking the suspense, the official start of Sarkozy’s election campaign did seem to galvanise his supporters. Three opinion polls put the incumbent just one or two points behind Hollande in the first round of voting compared to the four or five point lead the Socialist had mid-February.

UMP members interviewed after his announcement were enthusiastic and have continued to be so at campaign rallies in Marseille and Montpellier.

But things didn’t go so well for Sarkozy on Wednesday in Bayonne, the main town of the French part of the Basque country, which is on the border with northern Spain.

When Sarkozy tried to do a walkabout part of the crowd booed, whistled and jostled him, accusing him of destroying jobs and defending the wealthy and pelting a bar where he had arranged to meet the people with eggs.

It was far from the first time that a politician has come face to face with boisterous opposition in public – indeed, Hollande was booed at the annual farming fair in Paris this week - and the CRS riot police quickly came to his rescue, but Sarkozy was visibly shaken and he took out his anger on the Socialists.

Socialist Party activists had connived with Basque separatists to intimidate the honest folk who wished to meet him, the president-candidate claimed. He went on to blame Hollande for the “violence”, accusing him of threatening to “purge” the civil service if he is elected and adding, “Obviously, that gets the rank and file all worked up.”

The Socialists have hit back, accusing Sarkozy of “losing his cool” now that, as a humble candidate, he no longer has “hundreds and hundreds of CRS to evacuate the population for hundreds of kilometres around” as Hollande aide Michel Sapin put it.

“Obviously we condemn violence,” declared Hollande’s communications chief Manuel Valls.”But if we can no longer demonstrate in this country and if Nicolas Sarkozy, every time there’s a bit of whistling, hits out at the Socialists accusing them of nothing less than working with a terrorist organisation and organising a purge as happened during the liberation, it’s time for him to come back down to earth.”

The term “purge” (épuration) has certainly livened up the campaign. It evokes both the sometimes chaotic and violent purge of collaborators after the Nazi occupation of France in World War II and the purges in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.

Sarkozy was referring to Hollande’s accusation that he had appointed placemen to key state positions during his presidency and the Socialist candidate's conclusion that “those connected to this system will clearly have to stand aside for others”.

Saying Hollande wants a “purge” or a “witch-hunt”, as some UMP officials have, is just malicious gossip, commented the Grand Rabbi of France Gilles Bernheim on Friday.

But that hasn’t stopped dedicated Sarkozistes like Copé, who has demanded that Hollande condemn the Bayonne boisterousness, and Bayonne mayor Jean Grenet, who apologised to the chief and accused the demonstrators of being “anti-globalisation campaigners, anarchists, radical separatists, and, above all, Socialist representatives who were with them”.

Other exciting moments in the campaign this week included:

  • After being racially abused by a group of skinheads shouting “Le Pen president!” and throwing glasses at them, Socialist Arnaud Montebourg, who failed to become his party’s presidential candidate, and his partner Audrey Pulvar, one of France’s few high-profile black TV presenters, addressed the far-right Front National’s presidential candidate in a tweet, “Marine Le Pen, do you support this?” Le Pen responded by suing for libel.
  • France’s football league president Frédéric Thiriez declared that François Hollande’s proposal to tax incomes over one million euros at 75 per cent would push French football “into the European second division” by driving top players into tax exile.
  • Giving foreigners the right to vote in local elections, as Hollande proposes, could lead to school and workplace canteens only serving halal meat and swimming pools being segregated according to sex, according to Interior Minister Claude Guéant in a speech in eastern France on Friday. “Everybody understands that if we take in fewer immigrants things will be better,” he told his audience.
  • Self-styled centre candidate François Bayrou accused the two poll leaders of indulging in a “cockfight”, accusing Sarkozy of being out of touch and dubbing Hollande’s tax proposal “demagogic” based on “improvisation” and “amateurism”. "If you can no longer get rich in France, tomorrow's wealthy will be the sons of today's wealthy," he told a meeting in Angers, northern France.

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