Sarkozy hits back at critics, defends FN voters

23rd December 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Dec 23 (AFP) - Nicolas Sarkozy, France's hardline interior minister who has ambitions to become president in 2007 elections, hit back Friday at critics accusing him of far-right tendencies in a lively and direct interview with Libération newspaper.

PARIS, Dec 23 (AFP) - Nicolas Sarkozy, France's hardline interior minister who has ambitions to become president in 2007 elections, hit back Friday at critics accusing him of far-right tendencies in a lively and direct interview with Libération newspaper.

"I am a scrupulous republican, probably less narrow-minded than you," he told the left-leaning daily.

He dismissed recent campaigns against him as being too quick to draw parallels between him and Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the far-right xenophobic National Front (FN), for his vigorous crackdown on illegal immigration, stepped-up policing and tougher law-and-order legislation.

Such campaigns included an AIDS activist group, Act Up, sticking up posters of Sarkozy's photo with the tag "Vote Le Pen" in Paris this week.

Sarkozy said his firm policies on the right acted to draw voters away from the more radical positions of Le Pen, who made it through to second place in 2002 presidential elections eventually won by Jacques Chirac by a landslide.

"Who are the FN voters? No doubt there is a small number of true fascists and racists, but the overwhelming majority are people who are crying out for help. They are afraid, feel abandoned," he said.

"The fact that I am being heard by all these people should make you happy," he told Libération.

The 50-year-old minister, who has proved a thorn in Chirac's side over the past three years, is credited with being one of France's most popular politicians in various surveys. He is also the leader of the conservative ruling UMP party.

His main rival for the presidency is seen as Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, 52, who, though he has not been as open as Sarkozy in declaring his ambitions for the top job, enjoys the full support of Chirac.

Chirac himself has not said whether he will seek a third mandate, but, at 73 and with recent health problems and a slump in voter support, that appears increasingly unlikely.

In the Libération interview, Sarkozy defended his rhetoric before and during the three weeks of urban rioting that gripped France in late October and early November, including his use of the word 'rabble' ('racaille') to describe unruly youths in the high-immigrant areas where the unrest occurred.

"I don't see anything at all anti-republican in what I did during those three weeks of violence, nor during my 30 years of political life," he said.

He rejected criticism from sporting and entertainment figures — several of whom had pulled themselves out of the grim suburbs by their talent — by saying they were less qualified than he when it came to addressing the social problems in the riot-hit areas.

A warning from a star French soccer player, Lilian Thuram, who is black, that Sarkozy's words were dangerous because they pandered to racist elements was countered by the minister.

Pointing out that Thuram was a highly paid athlete now living in Italy, Sarkozy said: "I think I know what happens in the French suburbs a little better than Lilian Thuram."

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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