Nicolas Sarkozy accused his chief rival in the race for France’s centre-right presidential ticket of selling out to left-wingers ahead of a television debate on Thursday evening in which the ex-president hopes to close the gap.
Trailing Alain Juppe, a former prime minister, in opinion polls, Sarkozy launched his attack in a Facebook post, setting the tone for a prime-time TV duel between the two frontrunners in a contest that will decide who runs for the conservatives in an election that takes place in two rounds next April and May.
Sarkozy said that Juppe as president would be held hostage to an alliance with Francois Bayrou, a centrist who voted for Socialist Francois Hollande instead of Sarkozy in 2012.
“We cannot put an end to Socialist rule by handing the keys of the future majority to a man who put us (in the hands of the Socialists) in the first place by voting for Francois Hollande,” said Sarkozy, who led France from 2007 to 2012.
Less than three weeks from The Republicans party primary, Sarkozy, 61, has ramped up his attacks on Juppe, 71, who has carved out an image as an elder statesman figure next to a jumpier Sarkozy.
Another centrist politician, Jean-Christophe Lagarde, whose Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI) is supporting Juppe, described Sarkozy as a “dangerous candidate” who was alienating middle-ground voters.
“NO TIME FOR HALF MEASURES”
In his post, Sarkozy portrayed himself as a bold leader who would enact “immediate, far-reaching” reforms needed to reduce the tax burden and revive a faltering economic recovery in the euro zone’s number two economy.
“Alain Juppe … thinks that he must move slowly,” Sarkozy said. “I think France has no time for half measures.”
During his presidency, Sarkozy defied mass strikes and protests to raise the retirement age to 62 from 60 but he failed to curb rising unemployment and a large public-sector deficit.
His aggressive, more American-style manner then and now both attracts and repels voters.
A first TV debate last month was a restrained affair in which seven centre-right candidates struggled to differentiate their plans to curb unemployment and cut tax and state spending.
The contenders remained relatively muted even when quizzed on more emotive issues such as France’s tradition of rigorous secularism and political opposition to the burkini head-to-toe beachwear worn by some Muslim women.
Juppe presents himself as a unifying statesman. His “happy identity” campaign aims to create a more consensual national debate on France’s capacity to integrate Muslim migrants and on soothing religion-based tensions following Islamist attacks in Paris, Nice and elsewhere.
Sarkozy is unhappy about a party rule that allows anybody willing to pay two euros and sign a declaration that they share centre-right values to vote in the primaries. That is thought to favour Juppe, who has more support among centrist voters.
The first round of the primary contest is set for Nov 20, with a second round a week later. The winner has a good chance of becoming France’s next president, given the deep unpopularity of Socialist incumbent Hollande.