The two French presidential candidates have headed into the last round of their campaign battles with both of them threatened by the shadow of scandal, a week ahead of the country’s runoff.
As he struggled to catch up with his Socialist rival and front runner Francois Hollande, incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy called for tougher borders and a stronger national identity.
Sarkozy, who lags his centre-left challenger Hollande by 10 points in opinion polls for the May 6 vote, hammered home a message aimed at the nearly one-in-five far-right voters whose support he needs to win a second term.
In a speech in the southern city of Toulouse on Sunday, the conservative Sarkozy used the word “border” dozens of times as he stressed that love of one’s country should not be confused with “dangerous nationalist ideology”.
“Without borders there is no nation, there is no Republic, there is no civilisation,” Sarkozy told about 10,000 supporters. “We are not superior to others but we are different,” he said.
Hollande took the moral high ground when he addressed about 22,000 Socialist voters at a simultaneous rally in Paris, saying he would not stoop to using such vote-garnering tactics.
“I want victory, but not at any price, not at the price of caricature and lies,” he said. “I want to win over the men and women who are angry, a hundred times yes, but compromise myself? A thousand times no.”
There was scant mention of the economy from either, despite widespread concern over sickly growth levels that are threatening deficit-cutting targets in Europe’s No 2 economy.
Hollande’s tax-and-spend programme seeks to balance the budget in 2017, a year after Sarkozy, who wants to trim labour costs to boost competitiveness. Analysts say that whoever wins, big austerity cuts will be needed in the months ahead.
As the duel between the hot-blooded Sarkozy and the mild-mannered Hollande heated up, the president scorned a report by investigative website Mediapart saying deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi sought to fund his 2007 election campaign.
Sarkozy said he was shocked by Mediapart’s report that it had dug up a document from Libya’s former secret services indicating Gaddafi’s government decided to finance Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign.
“Who led the coalition to topple Gaddafi? It was France!” Sarkozy told Canal television. “Do you think that if Gaddafi had anything on me I would have tried to oust him?” he added.
“It’s a disgrace. It’s a fabrication,” said Sarkozy, accusing the website of working in the service of the left.
He also dismissed as nonsense accusations from former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the Socialists’ presidential favourite before he was felled by a May 2011 sex scandal, that his downfall was orchestrated by his political foes.
Strauss-Kahn said that political opponents had torpedoed his presidential bid by making sure his now infamous sexual encounter with a hotel maid was made public.
The Socialists distanced themselves from the Strauss-Kahn accusations, published in British daily The Guardian on Friday.
Hollande said bluntly “he should not reappear in any form until this campaign concludes” and several party heavyweights walked out of a drinks party when they heard he was due to attend.
Hollande told Canal Strauss-Kahn was not part of his presidential campaign, and Segolene Royal, Hollande’s former partner and the Socialists’ losing candidate in the 2007 election, said Strauss-Kahn was “unwanted”.
Yet, despite frustration from outside France with a campaign that has featured more bickering over domestic concerns than big-picture ideas on Europe’s economic future, Sunday’s rallies suggested the last days of the race will bring more of the same.
Sarkozy is wooing the 6.4 million voters who backed the far-right’s Marine Le Pen in the first round vote last week.
Sarkozy needs about 80 per cent of Le Pen voters behind him to win, but surveys show only 44-60 per cent plan to back him.