French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday publicly said that he would quit politics if he loses next month’s election, as his Socialist challenger pressed home his attacks on the incumbent’s record.
“I tell you, yes,” he said when asked on a TV program if he would withdraw from public life if, as opinion polls predict, he loses to Socialist Francois Hollande in the two-round vote next month and in May.
However, Sarkozy made it clear he had not already thrown in the towel and announced a raft of new measures after a week that saw his re-election campaign take a sharp turn to the right on integration and immigration issues.
He told BFMTV he was working on a new plan to help France’s underprivileged and unruly suburbs, a fund to help single mothers and extra measures to stop people cheating on social security benefits.
Sarkozy has failed to narrow the gap with Hollande — who has enjoyed a clear opinion poll lead for five months — and this week pulled out all the stops to revamp what many critics say has been a lackluster campaign.
In a marathon three-hour television interview on Tuesday, he said that there were too many immigrants in France and that the country’s attempts to integrate foreign arrivals into its culture and society had become paralyzed.
That statement came as French Jewish and Muslim leaders united to complain that they were being used as pawns in a presidential election increasingly dominated by bitter disputes over national identity and ritual slaughter.
Sarkozy picked up on a debate about halal meat — initially launched by the anti-immigrant National Front leader Marine Le Pen — and said that its spread in butchers’ shops was a major problem for the French.
That fueled accusations that he was pinning his hopes on catching up on Hollande — in what appears to be shaping up as a clear two-horse race — on winning back voters who lean toward the National Front.
Others accused him of being sidetracked by side issues at a time when France is struggling to generate growth and to escape the eurozone financial crisis.
Sarkozy had previously said he would withdraw from politics if spurned by voters. However, those remarks — made to reporters during a trip to French Guiana — were meant to be off the record.
Hollande, who has never held a ministerial post and whose ex-partner, Segolene Royal, lost to Sarkozy in 2007, this week pressed home his attacks on his rival’s record in five years at the Elysee palace. He mocked Sarkozy’s plan, announced on Tuesday, to slap a new tax on the profits of listed companies that he said would bring in up to three billion euros (US$3.9 billion) a year to help cut the public deficit.
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