PARIS, Jan 16 (AFP) – Outspoken French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy on Friday denied making derogatory remarks about sumo wrestling, comments that were widely interpreted as an indirect attack on President Jacques Chirac.
“I never made such remarks. I take responsibility for things that I say, but not for those that I don’t,” he told several journalists on the sidelines of his traditional New Year’s reception for the press.
“You didn’t say anything about the sumotori?” a journalist asked again, to which Sarkozy responded: “Certainly not in such excessive terms.”
According to the weekly French magazine Paris Match, Sarkozy said last week at a dinner during a visit to Hong Kong: “How can anyone be fascinated by these battles between fat guys with slicked-down ponytails? Sumo wrestling is really not a sport for intellectuals.”
The minister – who harbors presidential ambitions and is in the midst of a not-so-secret spat with Chirac – also said, according to Paris Match: “Hong Kong is a magical city. But Tokyo is not. This capital city is suffocating.
“As for Kyoto, I don’t understand how anyone can be amazed by this (former imperial) city. Even the famous imperial gardens, I found them to be grim.”Several journalists who attended the Hong Kong dinner have confirmed hearing Sarkozy make the comments in question.
Chirac’s office declined to comment on Sarkozy’s statements, which seemed to be a direct attack against the French leader, who is an admirer of Japanese culture and has travelled to the Land of the Rising Sun dozens of times.
Sumo wrestling is one of Chirac’s favourite sport, and he regularly checks match results and keeps up to date with developments in the traditional world of Japan’s national sport. His dog’s name? Sumo.
In 1998, the French president even told the French sports newspaper L’Equipe that he would have liked to have learned sumo wrestling.
Didier Longuevre, president of Bretagne-Japon, a Franco-Japanese association based in the western French city of Rennes, said the statements showed “a lack of consideration on the minister’s part for Japanese culture.”
But Japan’s sumo association on Friday shrugged off Sarkozy’s remarks, with a spokesman saying: “As an individual he is entitled to his opinion. I suppose he would say such things if he was criticizing President Chirac.”
Sarkozy’s reported anti-Japan comments came to light after a series of incidents that saw the tough-talking interior minister grate on nerves at the Elysee.
Sarkozy, 48, has been at odds with Chirac ever since he made it clear that he hoped to take over at the next presidential elections in 2007.
Asked on a television show if he thought much of the presidency, Sarkozy replied: “Oh yes, and not just when I am shaving.” In another interview, he said presidents should be limited to two mandates and that old politicians should give way to a new generation.
The target of the message was not hard to figure out: Chirac is 71, halfway through his second term and considering a third. He began his political career in the mid-1960s.
In his comments in Hong Kong, as reported by Paris Match, Sarkozy went even further to provoke Chirac, saying that while in Egypt, he had stayed in a hotel once frequented by Chirac’s Socialist predecessor Francois Mitterrand.
“He at least had taste!” Sarkozy said of Mitterrand, in what seemed to be a rather unflattering comparison to Chirac.
Insiders at the Place Beauvau – the interior ministry building that conveniently lies just a few dozen meters away from the Elysee palace — say Sarkozy is well aware of the effect he is having.
“Chirac doesn’t hate me. It is worse: he fears me,” he was quoted as saying in Le Monde newspaper last week.
Subject: France news