Sarkozy on defensive in bitter final election battle

PARIS Sun Apr 29, 2012 4:59pm EDT

1 of 2. France's President and UMP party candidate for the French 2012 presidential elections Nicolas Sarkozy (L) arrives for his re-election campaign rally in Dijon April 27, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

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PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for tougher borders and a stronger national identity on Sunday and accused the left of petty slander as he struggled to catch up with his Socialist rival a week before a presidential runoff.

Sarkozy, who lags his centre-left challenger Francois Hollande by 10 points in opinion polls for the May 6 vote, hammered home a message aimed at the nearly one-in-five far-right voters whose support he needs to win a second term.

In a speech in the southern city of Toulouse, which was shaken in March when an Islamic gunman went on a shooting rampage, the conservative Sarkozy used the word "border" dozens of times as he stressed that love of one's country should not be confused with "dangerous nationalist ideology".

"Without borders there is no nation, there is no Republic, there is no civilization," Sarkozy told some 10,000 supporters. "We are not superior to others but we are different," he said.

Hollande took the moral high ground when he addressed some 22,000 Socialist voters at a simultaneous rally in Paris, saying he would not stoop to using such vote-garnering tactics.

"I want victory, but not at any price, not at the price of caricature and lies," he said. "I want to win over the men and women who are angry, a hundred times yes, but compromise myself? A thousand times no."

There was scant mention of the economy from either, despite widespread concern over sickly growth levels that are threatening deficit-cutting targets in Europe's No. 2 economy.

Hollande's tax-and-spend program seeks to balance the budget in 2017, a year after Sarkozy, who wants to trim labor costs to boost competitiveness. Analysts say that whoever wins, big austerity cuts will be needed in the months ahead.

The surprise score of National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who swept 17.9 percent of last Sunday's presidential first round to rank third behind Hollande and Sarkozy, has turned the runoff into a fight for her voters, many of whom say they will abstain.

Under fire from members of his own political camp for a lurch to the right over the past week, Sarkozy seemed, however, to focus solely on those voters as he criticized Europe for being unquestioningly dedicated to free trade.

"In 2007, the issue was work. In 2012, the issue is borders and I will put them at the centre of the debate," he said.

As the duel between the hot-blooded Sarkozy and the mild-mannered Hollande heated up, the president scorned a report by investigative website Mediapart saying deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi sought to fund his 2007 election campaign.

He also dismissed as nonsense accusations from former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the Socialists' presidential favorite before he was felled by a May 2011 sex scandal, that his downfall was orchestrated by his political foes.

The Socialists distanced themselves from the Strauss-Kahn accusations, published in British daily The Guardian on Friday.

Hollande said bluntly "he should not reappear in any form until this campaign concludes" and several party heavyweights walked out of a drinks party when they heard he was due to attend.

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Graphic on French polls r.reuters.com/was36s

French election online link.reuters.com/pyr27s

Interactive runoff calculator r.reuters.com/nym77s

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STINK BOMBS

With two-thirds of French telling pollsters they have a negative view of him, Sarkozy is the most unpopular incumbent to seek a second term and the only one to lose a first-round vote after Hollande beat him by just over one percentage point.

Privately, some ministers and pro-government lawmakers say Sarkozy would do better to stress reviving economic growth and employment, investment and training, themes on which Hollande has dominated the debate.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the combination of the Mediapart report and Strauss-Kahn's claim of a plot against him suggested the Socialists were uncertain of victory next weekend.

"As if by chance, it's the moment when all the stink bombs are being thrown about in a scandalous fashion," he added.

Sarkozy said he was shocked by Mediapart's report that it had dug up a document from Libya's former secret services indicating Gaddafi's government decided to finance Sarkozy's 2007 campaign.

"Who led the coalition to topple Gaddafi? It was France!," Sarkozy told Canal+ television. "Do you think that if Gaddafi had anything on me I would have tried to oust him?" he added.

"It's a disgrace. It's a fabrication," Sarkozy said, accusing the website of working in the service of the left.

He said the report seemed to be aimed at distracting attention from the reappearance of Strauss-Kahn, whose comments he scorned as "vulgar". The former finance minister "should have the decency to keep quiet", Sarkozy said.

Strauss-Kahn said that political opponents had torpedoed his presidential bid by making sure his now infamous sexual encounter with a hotel maid was made public.

SOCIALISTS EMBARRASSED

The article clearly embarrassed the Socialists.

Hollande told Canal+ Strauss-Kahn was not part of his presidential campaign, and Segolene Royal, Hollande's former partner and the Socialists' losing candidate in the 2007 election, said Strauss-Kahn was "unwanted".

Sarkozy has consistently tried to focus voters' attention on his rival's lack of government experience and policies he says will be a disaster for an economy struggling to reduce debt.

Yet despite frustration from outside France with a campaign that has featured more bickering over domestic concerns than big-picture ideas on Europe's economic future, Sunday's rallies suggested the last days of the race will bring more of the same.

Sarkozy needs about 80 percent of Le Pen voters behind him to win, but surveys show only 44-60 percent plan to back him.

Weighing in to back Sarkozy, Fillon said Mediapart's purported document was "false" or "impossible to verify" and said it was ridiculous to talk of 50 million euros when the campaign cost 20 million and had publicly available accounts.

Mediapart, staffed by a number of veteran French newspaper and news agency journalists, printed a copy of a 2006 document in Arabic, apparently signed by Gaddafi's former intelligence chief Moussa Koussa, which stated his government would pay 50 million euros for Sarkozy's campaign. It called for an inquiry.

(Additional reporting by Sophie Louet; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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