LYON (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy accused Socialist rival Francois Hollande on Saturday of advocating incoherent and ruinous economic policies as he tried to discredit him ahead of the first round of an April-May presidential election.
In a fiery speech in Lyon in front of some 8,000 flag-waving supporters, Sarkozy said Hollande had duped French voters by denying there was a need for painful reforms, alleging his rival was jeopardizing the country’s future by refusing to address the need for structural change.
He also lashed out at what he said were Hollande’s many U-turns on economic policy.
“It’s disrespectful to tell the French in the morning that you’re going to reduce the debt, in the evening that you’re not going to make any savings, and the next morning, after thinking about it, that you’re going to spend more,” Sarkozy said.
Hollande has promised to balance the country’s beleaguered finances by 2017, but appeared to go back on that pledge in a televised debate this week, saying he would prioritize growth over austerity and amend his targets if the economy proved weak.
In a campaign speech on Saturday, he also vowed to renegotiate the EU fiscal compact to include a financial transaction tax and European bonds in a bid to stimulate growth via investment in energy, education and urban development.
Sarkozy, who has been closing in on Hollande in the polls, blasted his rival for sending what he said was a cynical message to voters.
“In a presidential campaign, you can’t lie. You can’t hide what you are and what you want,” Sarkozy told his audience in a 45-minute speech in which he made no new policy proposals.
“You can’t hide what kind of President you’ll be. You can’t keep on talking about nothing indefinitely and committing to nothing, you can’t keep running away from debate, masking the challenges,” he said to cheers and applause.
Hollande struck back, accusing his opponent of resorting to insults to hide his own lack of proposals and achievements.
“I think he’s getting desperate. He can’t fall back on his record, it just looks bad, he’s not putting forward a project. All he can do his show himself and his lack of restraint,” he told TF1’s evening news.
Hollande’s spokesman Bernard Cazeneuve went further, saying the tirade was typical of Sarkozy’s vulgar style, accusing him of lacking dignity when it came to his policy on immigration.
The conservative leader has pledged to halve immigration if reelected in May and returned to the theme again in Lyon by stressing that a failure to control France’s borders would undermine the country’s sense of national unity.
Sarkozy has been gaining momentum in the run-up to the April-May vote, with an energetic campaign in which he has pledged to make a policy announcement every week and shifted to the right in a bid to poach National Front voters.
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He has also tried to shed the “bling-bling” image that has stalked him since the start of his presidency, presenting himself as calmer and more down to earth in media appearances, even laughing at caricatures of himself in the popular talk show “Le Grand Journal” on Canal+ this week.
An IFOP poll published on Saturday showed Sarkozy’s approval rating had risen to 36 percent in March from 33 percent the previous month. The result nonetheless remained well below Sarkozy’s score of 65 percent in the weeks that followed his 2007 election victory.
Hollande, meanwhile, has been running out of steam in the polls after setting out his manifesto in January and giving lacklustre performances at campaign rallies.
Sarkozy on Saturday accused him of being reduced to making token gestures to gain support, referring to Hollande’s pledge on Friday to eliminate the term “zone”, used in France to designate sensitive urban areas. Hollande has already promised to delete the word “race” from the French constitution.
“I’m not going to wage war against the dictionary, I want to wage war against illiteracy, poverty, unemployment, unfair competition, communitarianism, delinquency,” Sarkozy said.
Reporting By Philippe Wojazer in Lyon and Emmanuel Jarry in Paris; Editing by Andrew Osborn