|Date: 02/05/2012 Time: 10:12:00 AM
The French presidential election heads this week
into the home straight with the run-up to the May 6 ballot pitting incumbent,
conservative Nicolas Sarkozy against Socialist challenger Francois Hollande.
The two contenders are to face-off in a national debate Wednesday night, an
event that could be decisive in the campaign, given the split in voting in the
Hollande edged out Sarkozy in the first round April 22, winning 28.6
percent of votes, 1.4 percent more than the 27.2 percent for Sarkozy. Eight
other candidates for the presidency were eliminated by the two leading
The latest polls give Hollande as favourite with around 53 percent of the
vote, but some 25 percent of people polled said they had not yet chosen their
Most important next Sunday will be the vote of the extreme-right National
Front supporters, who represented 18 percent of ballots in the first round on
April 22, when 80 percent of France's 44.5 million voters went to the polls.
Neither Hollande nor Sarkozy, both aged 57, has reached out directly to the
politically sensitive National Front voters, although some in Sarkozy's camp
have been discreetly vying for National Front support.
On Wednesday, in an interview with radical-right media "Minute", Defence
Minister Gerard Longuet said that National Front leader Marine Le Pen is a
"possible interlocutor," a statement that shocked many, even conservatives,
because of the often racist and anti-immigrant undertones in the National
Sarkozy has, however, been clear in saying there will be "no alliance with
and no ministers from" the extreme right if his UMP party wins June
legislative elections that follow the presidential contest.
The French President has challenged Hollande to three debates but the
Socialist challenger has refused and would only agree to a single debate on
Sarkozy has argued all through the campaign on the need for further
"rigour" and reforms in France to avoid burgeoning debt and budget problems
facing several countries in Europe like Greece, Spain, Italy, Ireland and
He is promoting budget discipline and a brake on public spending and more
social and labour reforms, a position that has alienated some unions,
particularly the communist General Confederation for Work (CGT), which has
publicly called to vote Hollande.
The incumbent was a key actor in formulating and promoting a European
Treaty signed earlier this year that sets out strict budgetary discipline
rules to reduce deficits and limit borrowing. It also gives the European Union
more oversight on national budgets.
France currently has USD 2.2 trillion in national debt, which is close to
90 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Public deficits have been reduced
to around 5.2 percent of GDP, which is still above the European Union
mandatory level of 3.0 percent of GDP.
The economy is expected to grow by a tepid 1.0 percent this year, although
the ruling conservatives have advanced the figure of 1.7 percent growth.
Hollande says he will seek to renegotiate the European Treaty and include a
chapter on the need to promote growth in member countries but this could be
difficult with countries like Germany which are insisting on more discipline.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who supports Sarkozy, maintains the Treaty
cannot be renegotiated.
Hollande's policy is centred on 60 measures which include hiring more civil
servants, increasing taxes on the highest earners and seeking to improve
purchasing power, but his margin for manoeuvre is very limited because of the
He proposes eliminating tax breaks for certain sectors or individuals,
hiking taxes on profits and banks and promoting youth employment at a time
when the jobless rate in France has reached 10 percent.
Hollande would also order a withdrawal of French forces from Afghanistan by
the end of 2012, a move that is contested by the military as unfeasible and
dangerous to France's NATO allies and Afghan National Army (ANA) forces.
Sarkozy already brought forward the withdrawal timetable to end of 2013,
one year earlier than planned by NATO.
Holland says, if he is elected, that he will announce the withdrawal at the
NATO summit in Chicago at the end of May.
A withdrawal in 2012 is "technically, logistically and militarily
impractical" and is "morally wrong and dangerous," Defence Minister Longuet
said in comments to KUNA last month.
France has around 3,000 troops remaining in Afghanistan, down from a peak
of almost 4,000 and there have been 82 French soldiers killed in that conflict
since it began in 2001.
Hollande also says he will do away with presidential immunity for past
misdoing and that the president and his ministers should answer to the people
instead of special courts composed of their peers.
This comes at a time when several allegations have emerged trying to link
Sarkozy with corruption in party financing and after former conservative
president, Jacques Chirac, was convicted and given a suspended sentence for
Sarkozy has denied the most recent allegations as "grotesque" but a
preliminary investigation has been launched.