President Nicolas Sarkozy was accused yesterday by a former colleague of adopting "fascist" and "violent" rhetoric in his no-holds-barred campaign for re-election this spring.
In the first days of his campaign, President Sarkozy has denounced the Socialist front-runner, François Hollande, as a "dangerous" and "dishonest" man who does not "like France". The President said that the democratic rights of the French people had been "confiscated" by "elitist" lobbies, pressure groups and trade unions.
Proclaiming himself to be the "candidate of the people", Mr Sarkozy said that, if re-elected, he would call a series of referendums on reforms to break the stranglehold of a "tiny elite".
His words were condemned as a dangerous lapse into "demagoguery" yesterday by opponents and political commentators. They were also criticised by senior colleagues, including the former centre-right Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin.
A former Environment Minister, Corinne Lepage, said that she was "scandalised" by the "violence" of President Sarkozy's language. "This is extremely serious," said Ms Lepage, who hopes to run as an independent candidate in the April and May election. "This is how fascism began its rise in the 1930s. By attacking political parties and representative bodies [such as unions and lobby groups]."
President Sarkozy's supporters retorted that he had been bombarded with personal attacks by the left and far-right for months. He had the right to respond by "defining" the front-runner Mr Hollande as a weak and vacillating politician who would surrender to interest groups.
After delaying for weeks, President Sarkozy launched his re-election campaign last Wednesday with a series of appeals to conservative values such as "family", "discipline", "work" and "national identity". He has also made a string of American-style personal attacks on Mr Hollande – as a "liar... dishonest... irresponsible... dangerous" – without ever referring to him by name.
An opinion poll yesterday suggested that Mr Sarkozy had reaped some benefit from his aggressive strategy. According to Opinion-way, the President's support for the first round of the election on 22 April has risen by 1.5 per cent to 27 per cent, only two points behind François Hollande. All of Mr Sarkozy's extra support was captured from the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, who fell to 16.5 per cent.
The same poll suggested that Mr Hollande would still crush Mr Sarkozy by 56 per cent to 44 per cent in the decisive second round on 6 May. Another poll by TNS Sofres said that 54 per cent of French voters were now "certain" that they would not vote for President Sarkozy in either April or May.
Mr Hollande's campaign yesterday tried to turn around Mr Sarkozy's "elitist" jibe and deploy it against the President. Press reports suggested Mr Sarkozy was manoeuvring to impose the former Environment Minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, as head of the struggling French water and waste conglomerate, Veolia. Mr Borloo pulled out of a potentially damaging campaign against Mr Sarkozy three months ago. Some of yesterday's reports suggested that the top job at Veolia was the former minister's "reward" for dropping out of the presidential race. Mr Hollande suggested that President Sarkozy was the "candidate of the board-rooms ... of blurred responsibilities and dubious deals".