Sarkozy puts economic crisis at heart of campaign


FRENCH PRESIDENT Nicolas Sarkozy has put his handling of the economic crisis at the heart of his re-election campaign, portraying himself as a strong leader who saved France from ruin.

Just days after formally announcing his bid for re-election, Mr Sarkozy claimed his chief rival, François Hollande of the Socialist Party, did not understand the depth of the economic crisis and posed a danger to France’s recovery.

“Those who behave like nothing serious has happened in the world over the past three years . . . are lying to the French people,” he said.

“You can’t be trusted to lead the country out of the crisis if you deny its existence.”

Mr Hollande enjoys a consistent lead over Mr Sarkozy in opinion polls, with the latest Ifop survey giving him 29.5 per cent against the incumbent’s 26 per cent. National Front leader Marine Le Pen was in third place on 17 per cent.

Both leading candidates have pledged to reduce France’s huge public deficit at about the same rate. But Mr Sarkozy has stressed the need to improve France’s competitiveness, while Mr Hollande says he would raise taxes on the rich to fund investment in education and research.

Although unemployment is at a 12-year high and economic growth has stagnated, Mr Sarkozy said France had emerged relatively unscathed from the crisis.

“We avoided catastrophe . . . Think of a Greek civil servant with his salary cut. Think of a Portuguese retiree with his pension cut. Think of thousands of Americans forced to live in trailer homes,” he told a rally in Marseilles yesterday.

“The truth is that France was not swept away by a crisis of confidence, that pensions were not cut, that unemployment did not explode.”

Returning to some of the themes of his successful 2007 campaign, Mr Sarkozy said he would introduce tighter immigration rules and hold a referendum to compel the unemployed to accept job or training offers.

“Loving France is realising that someone who doesn’t work is always being paid for by someone who does,” he said.

Mr Sarkozy blamed two of the socialists’ signature policy initiatives over the past 30 years – the 35-hour working week and a cut in the retirement age from 65 to 60 – for weakening France. He said that in order to raise the retirement age to 62 in 2010, he had broken with the tendency of previous governments to retreat in the face of street protests.

Without naming Mr Hollande, the president suggested his socialist opponent would damage French interests by closing nuclear power plants and regularising illegal immigrants.

The socialist manifesto calls for the closure of France’s oldest nuclear plant and rules out any mass regularisation programme.

Mr Hollande responded by saying he would not get involved in “put-downs” and “low blows”. “I’m going to run based on my manifesto,” he said.

Against the backdrop of French and EU flags, Mr Sarkozy said he would represent the interests of “the people” against “the elites”.

He pledged to cut the number of members in the lower house of parliament and to introduce greater proportionality in legislative elections to give smaller parties a better chance.

At her own rally in the northern city of Lille, Ms Le Pen ridiculed the president’s effort to align himself with “the people” against the elite.

“The candidate of the powerful has become, with a stroke of media magic, the candidate of the people,” she said. “It’s the ultimate insult from a failed presidency.”

The National Front leader urged right-wing voters to shun Mr Sarkozy in the first round on April 22nd so as to knock him out of the May 6th run-off.

“People of France, give Nicolas Sarkozy a red card. Let’s get him off the pitch,” she told 2,000 cheering supporters.