Despite trailing in polls, Sarkozy refuses to agree to referendum on EU fiscal treaty


FRENCH PRESIDENT Nicolas Sarkozy has rejected calls for a referendum on the European Union’s fiscal treaty.

Mr Sarkozy, who is trailing the socialist François Hollande in opinion polls seven weeks before the presidential election, came under pressure to promise a referendum on the pact after he pledged to consult the people directly on significant issues if re-elected.

“No,” he replied when asked on French radio yesterday if he would put the treaty to a public ballot. “If you’re dealing with a treaty with 200 articles, 250 articles, I can’t see how you’d formulate a clear question.”

He said a national plebiscite would only be effective on a European issue if it were on a clear-cut issue such as a country’s membership of the euro.

EU leaders are due to sign in March the fiscal compact pushed by France and Germany and approved in late January by 25 of the bloc’s 27 members.

The pact will impose quasi-automatic sanctions on countries that breach EU budget deficit limits and enshrine budget rules in national law.

The French electoral calendar means the treaty cannot be passed by parliament until after the election. Mr Hollande has said he will seek to renegotiate parts of the deal if he wins, a move that has been criticised by Mr Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Arnaud Montebourg, a prominent party figure who came third in the presidential primary last autumn and has been campaigning for Mr Hollande, went further than the candidate by predicting the treaty “will never be ratified”.

Mr Montebourg said a left-wing majority in France would never vote for the pact, while there was “not a majority” in favour of it in Ireland, the UK or other European countries. “The ‘Merkozy’ treaty would inflict austerity on all of Europe and plunge us dangerously into recession,” he said.

Over a week after formally announcing his re-election bid, Mr Sarkozy remains between one and six points behind Mr Hollande in opinion polls for the April 22nd first round. The gap between the two men in a hypothetical second round is more definitive, with polls giving the socialist a lead of up to 12 points for the May 6th run-off.

In a sharpening of the rhetorical battle between the two main camps, Mr Hollande’s spokeswoman said at the weekend that the president’s model was “a mixture of Berlusconi and Putin” and accused him of selling French people “a fake, a forgery, a contraband product imagined by the brains of the far right”.

This was a reference to a series of recent announcements from Mr Sarkozy, including tighter immigration rules and a referendum to compel the jobless to take up job and training offers, that are seen as an attempt to win back voters from the far-right National Front.

While the socialists believe their candidate will benefit if the focus can be kept on the unpopular Mr Sarkozy, the president’s camp hopes to exploit Mr Hollande’s lack of government experience.

“Can the socialists think of one single thing that François Hollande has achieved during 30 years in politics?” Mr Sarkozy asked supporters at the weekend.

Both candidates have spent recent days focussing on two important voter groups – farmers and blue-collar workers.

At France’s annual agricultural show, an obligatory campaign stop for all candidates this week, Mr Sarkozy vowed to defend the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and reassured farmers their sector was an important to France as aeronautics and pharmaceuticals.

The two frontrunners have also visited a number of struggling factories and presented rival plans to save them from closure.

Mr Sarkozy has promised huge state investment in a northern steel plant, ArcelorMittal, which is on the verge of closure.

Mr Hollande vowed to save the plant by enacting a law that would force companies to sell unused factories to buyers who would keep them in operation.