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Sarkozy campaign is spinning its wheels By Siegfried Mortkowitz

dpa German Press Agency
Published: Monday December 18, 2006

Paris- With four months remaining until the first round of French presidential elections, the high-octane campaign of Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy appears to be losing momentum. Certainly, polls show Sarkozy still running neck-and-neck with his Socialist opponent, Segolene Royal, but a series of miscalculations have put a serious dent into his carefully nurtured image of high competence.

Royal's triumph in the Socialist primary vote following a series of high-profile and combative debates put pressure on Sarkozy and the UMP party he heads to offer voters a similar show of democratic openness.

Those demands came largely from within the ranks of his own party, especially from allies of President Jacques Chirac, many of whom charged that Sarkozy was incapable of accepting opinions that differed with his own and that the UMP reflected this intolerance by stifling all debate.

After being jeered at a UMP meeting in mid-November, Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, a longtime Chirac ally, wrote a letter to Sarkozy citing "the real difficulty to calmly debate within the UMP. The debate of ideas appears, alas, to be overshadowed by other considerations."

As a result, three so-called forums were scheduled to display the party's openness and at least make a show of presenting alternatives to Sarkozy.

The first forum, held on December 9, was a flop, with Alliot- Marie, the only Sarkozy opponent present, charging that the rules were changed at the last moment to her disadvantage, and media observers describing it as boring and grotesque.

The second forum, held six days later in Lyon, was better received but still fell far short of the Socialist example. Sarkozy and the UMP now have only one forum remaining to show they can be as open as their opponents.

Surprisingly, for a candidate who has declared himself the embodiment of a rupture with the past, Sarkozy has failed dismally in his use of the most modern of media tools, the internet.

While Royal has had an effective, and popular, blog up for many months, Sarkozy and his advisors completely ignored the internet when his campaign was launched on November 30.

As one of his advisors told the daily Liberation, "It is tragic that his campaign website was not launched at the moment he was on every television station, because the internet is a medium of instantaneity. And once you've missed out on the good timing, it's finished."

To make matters worse, an appearance at the Web 3 international internet conference in Paris last week turned into a "fiasco," the left-leaning Liberation reported.

According to Versac, a well-known French blogger, "Sarkozy had no business being at this conference and he completely messed up his speech," which reportedly was greeted by whistles and boos by a number of those present.

One of his advisors admitted that Sarkozy's appearance at Web 3 was not "well organized. He was apparently not briefed and his speech was that of someone who wanted to score campaign points."

The usually sharp-witted and articulate Sarkozy also failed to take advantage of a controversial gaffe by Royal when she met with a parliamentarian from the radical Islamic group Hezbollah during a visit to Lebanon and claimed not to have heard him compare Israeli actions with those of the Nazis.

Sarkozy's comment, that "Hitler was also elected but this did not make him a respectable interlocutor," was largely ignored at home, while Israeli officials gave Royal a warm welcome.

In fact, Sarkozy seems generally to be at a loss about how to combat Royal. He honed his pugnacious style in political battles against men, and has apparently chosen to trade in his boxing gloves for mitts of suede when dealing with her, a dubious strategy since it deprives him of one of his primary strengths.

Finally, Sarkozy has suffered not a little embarrassment because of his friends and his obsession for surrounding himself with show business stars.

The legendary French rock star Johnny Halliday, who openly embraced Sarkozy, provoked a storm of controversy when it became known last week that he would live for more than half of the year in Switzerland to avoid paying taxes in France.

In addition, the rap star Doc Gyneco, another Sarkozy supporter, was fined 665,000 euros (878,000 dollars) for non-payment of taxes for the years 1998 to 2000.

And the TV personality and singer Pascal Sevran is being sued by groups representing blacks for having declared that "the black penis is responsible for African famine" and that half the world should be sterilized.

None of these gaffes was Sarkozy's fault. But because he has always presented himself as a paragon of competence and good judgment he is being tarred for the sins of his supporters.

Despite all this, the interior minister remains popular, and he can count on next month's UMP congress - which is virtually certain to name him the party standard-bearer in the elections - to give his campaign a publicity-fuelled shot in the arm.

But Sarkozy has lost the early campaign skirmishes and, unless he recovers quickly, could soon be in danger of losing the war.

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency