Sarkozy scrambles to curb scandals

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Scrambling to limit damage from scandals over ministers' holidays in Tunisia and Egypt, French President Nicolas Sarkozy gives a TV interview Thursday to smooth the bumps at the start of a big year.

With the lines already being drawn for his re-election battle in 2012, and no sign of a rise in his low approval rating, Sarkozy is to field citizens' questions and is expected to speak for the first time on the holidays affair.

The hottest topic facing him is the admission by his prime minister and foreign minister that they accepted hospitality while on holiday in Tunisia and Egypt weeks before France endorsed popular uprisings in those countries.

He also faces an unprecedented strike by magistrates who say he stepped out of line and infringed their independence by criticising the handling of the recent case of a young woman allegedly murdered by a repeat offender.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon admitted on Tuesday that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak paid for his family holiday on the Nile last month, fuelling the outrage of the political opposition.

Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie earlier faced calls to resign for using the private plane of a businessman allegedly close to Tunisia's ousted dictator while on holiday in the country during the popular uprising there.

France had warm relations with Tunisian head of state Zine Abidine Ben Ali during his 23 years of iron-fisted rule, but once he was ousted Sarkozy promptly backed the protest movement and denied him refuge in France.

Like the United States, Britain and other western powers, France too considers Egypt a key regional ally. Like them, it called for immediate political transition after protests erupted against Mubarak.

Sarkozy has not commented specifically on those cases but on Tuesday he said that from now on ministers are asked to spend their holidays in France, and his government announced plans for a new law to curb conflicts of interest.

After scandals, political controversies and legislative rows rolled into one another in 2010, analysts say Sarkozy is now counting on his 2011 presidency of the G20 and G8 international clubs to win credibility at home and abroad.

A survey carried out last week by pollster Ifop and published on Tuesday showed his popularity rating stable at 34 percent, just one point above his record low, while Fillon's fell by four points to 51 percent.

However two-thirds of those polled judged that Sarkozy "defends France's interests abroad well."

"The media exposure linked to the French presidency of the G8 and G20 has probably wiped out the criticisms levelled at the French foreign service in handling the Tunisian and Egyptian crises," Ifop said in its study.

The stakes are high for Sarkozy, seen as the only serious presidential contender from his right-wing UMP party, as leading figures from the opposition Socialists are expected to announce in coming months whether they will run.

All eyes are on Socialist Dominique Strauss-Kahn, currently based in Washington as head of the International Monetary Fund, who polls say would thrash Sarkozy in a presidential race if he ran.

The interview was due to be broadcast at 8:30 pm (1930 GMT) on French private channel TF1.

© 2011 AFP

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