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Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy faced a series of verbal attacks on Thursday night, as right-wing rivals sparred in the first of three presidential primary debates.
Sarkozy was forced on the defensive on the debate stage, saying he was unjustly hounded by legal investigations, while fending off attacks by former party chief Jean-François Coppé and others.
“After 37 years in politics my criminal record is clean,” Sarkozy said in reference to allegations of influence-peddling and suspected illegal funding of his failed 2012 re-election campaign.”Do you think I would take part in this campaign if I had anything on my conscience?” Sarkozy, who is trying to storm back into the Elysée palace next year, asked.
Copé, who has also been investigated in connection to illegal funding, said he had hoped Sarkozy would be a reformer when he came to power in 2007 on a promise to shake up the established order.
“Ten years ago, I and millions of French people hoped for the change that Nicolas Sarkozy offered for our country. That change unfortunately never came,” Copé said, accusing Sarkozy of ducking the hard choices.
A little later in the live broadcast the two argued about who had championed 2009 legislation that banned wearing burqas, a full-cover Muslim garment, in public.
Copé claimed that lawmakers had approved the bill, despite a lack of support from Sarkozy and then-prime minister François Fillon, who is also a primary candidate and who took part in Thursday’s debate.
“You didn’t impose the burqa ban on us, Jean François,” Sarkozy shot back, “You were incapable of imposing anything on the prime minister or the president back then, as you are incapable today.”
MP Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet also jabbed Sarkozy, taking him to task over his remark that all French people should consider their ancestors to be Gauls. “Our ancestors even include Hungarians,” she said in reference to the former president’s own family background.
During the primetime showdown outsider candidates attempted to seduce conservative and centrist voters, with Fillon using his closing remarks to say the media was wrongly trying to portray the primary as a duel solely between frontrunners Sarkozy and Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppé.
Kosciusko-Morizet, the only woman in the contest, said she embodied a moderate political movement that enjoys a long tradition in France.
Juppé appeared to be the person most at ease during the two-hour grilling, gracefully navigating a question about past charges of graft and even laughing on a few occasions.
The debate stakes were high, with opinion polls showing that the winner of internal contest is likely to become the country’s next president.
French voters will pick the conservative presidential nominee in a two-round poll scheduled for November 20 and 27. The winner will move on to the general election, also a two-round ballot set for April and May of next year.
All the candidates are members of Les Républicains, except for Jean-Frédéric Poisson, who is the leader of the socially conservative Christian Democratic Party.
See FRANCE 24’s live blog below for an recap of the debate as it happened.