Sarkozy on the defensive after Royal nomination

21st November 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Nov 21, 2006 (AFP) - France's interior minister and presidential frontrunner Nicolas Sarkozy, thrown onto the defensive by the sweeping nomination victory of the socialist Ségolène Royal, was to champion a hotly-contested youth crime bill before parliament on Tuesday.

PARIS, Nov 21, 2006 (AFP) - France's interior minister and presidential frontrunner Nicolas Sarkozy, thrown onto the defensive by the sweeping nomination victory of the socialist Ségolène Royal, was to champion a hotly-contested youth crime bill before parliament on Tuesday.

Cast as a response to the problem of lawlessness in the deprived French suburbs hit by rioting last year, the bill is expected to be one of Sarkozy's last major initiatives before he stands down to focus on the presidential race.

Law and order is shaping up as a pivotal issue in next April's presidential election, with police chiefs warning the conditions that caused the 2005 riots in the country's high-immigration suburbs still remain firmly in place.

But left-wing politicians and media have attacked the bill — which notably brings in tougher penalties for young repeat offenders and lowers the minimum age of imprisonment — as "dangerous" and overly repressive.

Critics say the legislation, which introduces offences such as "ambushing law enforcement officers" in response to a recent spate of violence in the suburbs, illustrates the failure of Sarkozy's record on law-and-order.

Within the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), the crime prevention bill — already approved by the Senate and up for debate in the National Assembly until November 29 — has also highlighted mounting strains.

Allies of President Jacques Chirac's party have challenged several of its provisions, forcing Sarkozy to water them down.

Defence Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie — a powerful Chirac ally — clashed publicly with Sarkozy over the bill last week, accusing him of "treating all young people as potential delinquents".

And Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin — another close Chirac ally — took a swipe at his law-and-order policies at the weekend by warning the party against "fishing for (far-right) National Front votes".

Behind the split over the bill lies the broader question of the centre-right presidential nomination — almost certain to be clinched by Sarkozy who enjoys backing from three quarters of UMP sympathisers.

The UMP's political bureau will meet Wednesday to set a deadline for registering bids for the nomination — to be decided in a vote by the party's 293,000 members — with Sarkozy expected to declare his own candidacy early next month.

But Sarkozy has come under attack from several fronts in recent days — accused of stifling alternative visions within the UMP and blocking other candidates for the presidential race.

Alliot-Marie wrote to him on Monday demanding there be a "free and constructive debate" during the selection process.

At the weekend, Villepin said Sarkozy's nomination was not inevitable — although he took a more conciliatory line on Tuesday, describing the interior minister as an "asset" in an interview with Le Figaro newspaper.

Sarkozy, Villepin and Alliot-Marie were to meet Wednesday to try to defuse tensions ahead of the meeting, according to the defence minister's office.

Meanwhile in the opposition ranks, Socialist Party (PS) leaders have been eager to contrast the UMP's discomfiture to their own new sense of purpose following Royal's nomination on Thursday.

In a television interview Monday, Royal took a swipe at the divisions in the ruling party when asked which centre-right candidate she would rather face.

"That is up to them to decide" she replied, before adding: "I can only hope the chosen candidate has as much legitimacy" as that produced by the socialist nomination battle.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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