Sarkozy touts investments as election race hots up

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Nicolas Sarkozy promised massive investments for education, research and nuclear power on Monday, touting his economic performance as a top rival entered the 2012 presidential election race.

"If France wants to remain a great nation and preserve and finance its social model, it must invest massively: innovation, research, universities, health, digital, industry," Sarkozy told a news conference.

His appearance was ostensibly aimed at reviewing his 35-billion-euro ($50-billion) "big loan" stimulus programme launched in 2009 to fight the economic crisis, but circumstances gave it a strong electoral flavour.

As Sarkozy spoke, his race for re-election in 2012 heated up with opposition Socialists saying their party leader Martine Aubry, 60, would announce her bid to win the party's presidential nomination on Tuesday.

Sarkozy has yet to formally announce a bid, but he has strongly hinted he will run for re-election in ten months time and no other serious challenger has emerged from within his right-wing UMP party.

Aubry's allies present her as a candidate of the people, at a time of high unemployment and increased mistrust of the political elite.

Sarkozy's popularity is stuck at under 30 percent, raising the pressure on him to prove his economic credentials.

"I do not underestimate the suffering of our compatriots during the crisis, with half a million more unemployed. But it is less than in other countries," he said Monday.

He said the "big loan" scheme will have dished out 20 billion euros by the end of 2011, while insisting on the need for controversial reforms such as liberalising universities' financing to make them competitive.

France will also invest one billion euros ($1.4 billion) in future nuclear power development while boosting research into safety, he added.

Recent opinion polls suggest that either Aubry or former Socialist leader Francois Hollande could comfortably beat Sarkozy in the first round of voting, and would then have to win over centrist voters in the second-round run-off.

An IFOP poll published Monday showed Hollande with 43 percent of support from party members, ahead of Aubry with 34 percent. The party chooses its candidate at a primary in October.

The Socialists were thrown into turmoil in May when their top candidate Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested in New York, accused of sexually assaultinmg and trying to rape a hotel maid.

He denies the charges, but the scandal wrecked his electoral hopes and drove him to resign as head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Polls had ranked Strauss-Kahn as the contender most likely to beat Sarkozy.

Since Strauss-Kahn's downfall, Hollande has moved up in the polls to become the top contender, with Aubry also polling as able to beat Sarkozy.

Shock polls last month had shown the leader of the far-right National Front, Marine Le Pen, could beat Sarkozy in the first round of voting. A CSA poll last week indicated her rating had declined but was still strong at 16 percent.

Socialist Party sources said Aubry she would announce her candidacy in a speech scheduled at 0930 GMT on Tuesday, the deadline for Socialists to apply run in the primary, in her hometown of Lille.

Meanwhile, a minor reshuffle of Sarkozy's government is likely in the coming days if his Finance Minister Christine Lagarde succeeds in replacing Strauss-Kahn as head of the IMF.

The fund's board is due to name the new managing director by Thursday.

© 2011 AFP

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