Presidential rivals play similar political hands

18th September 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Sept 17, 2006 (AFP) - Young, plain-talking and media-savvy, with a back-to-basics appeal to traditional values, the centre-right's Nicolas Sarkozy and his left-wing rival Ségolène Royal are playing many of the same cards in the race for next year's presidential election.

PARIS, Sept 17, 2006 (AFP) - Young, plain-talking and media-savvy, with a back-to-basics appeal to traditional values, the centre-right's Nicolas Sarkozy and his left-wing rival Ségolène Royal are playing many of the same cards in the race for next year's presidential election.

With support from a crushing 80 percent of party sympathisers, Sarkozy, the interior minister and head of the ruling UMP appears certain to carry the party flag in April's contest to succeed President Jacques Chirac, who at 73 is unlikely to seek a third term.

Although half a dozen hopefuls are set to run for the Socialist nomination in November, many also see Royal's nomination as a foregone conclusion.

Though a newcomer to the top tier of French politics, the elegant head of the Poitou-Charentes regional council is backed by an overwhelming 56 percent of party sympathisers, while no other contender musters more than 15 percent.

On paper, the two offer radically different visions for France's future.

Sarkozy, 51, is seen as a hardliner — tough on crime and immigration — and an advocate of free market economics, while Royal, 52, casts herself as a faithful Socialist, though with a pragmatic, modernising streak.

Yet both promise renewal and a fresh new approach to politics — Sarkozy's motto is a "break" with the past, while Royal emphasises her "difference" — appealing to widespread voter frustration with the French political class.

Their public images and communication styles often overlap.

Both have captured the attention of the celebrity tabloids — this summer one ran competing shots of Royal in a bikini and Sarkozy jogging bare-chested on a beach — and regularly arrange photo shoots with news magazines.

And both have crammed their diaries full of overseas trips, brushing up their credentials as statesmen and outlining their foreign policy.

Royal's most high-profile trip was to Chile where she campaigned alongside Michele Bachelet, elected the country's first female president in January.

On Saturday she flew straight from a party congress in northern France to Madrid for talks with Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero — only a week after meeting Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi.

Other recent trips have taken her to Sweden — whose economic model she says she admires — and to Brussels.

Last week, meanwhile, Sarkozy was received by US President George W. Bush at the White House — exceptional for a mere minister — and delivered what US papers described as a staunchly pro-US foreign policy speech.

The interior minister also recently travelled to Italy, Spain and Brussels, where he caused a stir by opposing Turkish membership of the European Union.

In tune with public opinion — hostility to Turkey's bid is seen as a reason for French voters' rejection of the EU constitution last year — Royal has also said she could back a "partnership" with Ankara instead of full membership.

On the domestic front, meanwhile, both contenders are pushing a conservative, values-based agenda, calling for a culture of "respect", hard work, and restored authority.

Royal — the daughter of an army officer — stood accused of lurching into Sarkozy territory earlier this year by calling for military academies to deal with young offenders and the scrapping of benefits for their parents.

Last week, in a sign of how far their campaign styles overlap, both were caught borrowing from the formula coined by US president John F. Kennedy: "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country."

But the surface similarities between the two candidates often end there.

At a triumphant party congress this month, Sarkozy called for a society built around the reassertion of "the value of work" and attacked a "dependency and welfare culture" epitomised by the Socialists' 35-hour working week.

Royal, in a speech last month, also spoke of the need to "restore the value of work" — although unlike Sarkozy she was arguing against mass layoffs and the loosening of the labour code.

Meanwhile on immigration — shaping up as a key election issue — Royal has slammed Sarkozy's flagship policy of "chosen immigration", aimed at attracting skilled workers, as an attempt to "pillage" the developing world's resources.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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