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Sarkozy, rivals push for position in ’12 race

By Sylvie Corbet and Angela Charlton
Associated Press / May 18, 2011

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PARIS — French politicians of every stripe jockeyed for position — Socialists, conservatives, the far-right — as the strongest challenger to President Nicolas Sarkozy sat in a New York prison cell yesterday charged with sex crimes.

Topping it all off, Sarkozy’s father spilled the beans that a new baby would be appearing in France’s presidential palace. The joyful news for Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, could be a significant boon for the unpopular incumbent ahead of France’s presidential election next April.

Although leading French politicians were loath to say so out loud, Sarkozy could gain political leverage from the jailing of the IMF chief and prominent Socialist, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who stands accused of trying to rape a hotel maid in New York.

Sarkozy met privately with the leaders of his conservative UMP party yesterday and urged them to stay discreet about Strauss-Kahn’s case, according to French papers Le Figaro and Le Monde.

“In the current context, we should show sang-froid, courage, unity, and I would add dignity. We should be a rock of solidity to lead the country,’’ Sarkozy was quoted as saying.

At a Socialist party meeting, leader Martine Aubry urged party members to wait to hear Strauss-Kahn’s side of the story before passing judgment and pledged yesterday that the party would stick to its main objective: unseating Sarkozy.

“More than ever, we should be united and combative,’’ she said on France-Info radio. The important thing is that “one of us wins in 2012.’’

The Socialists have long been fraught with divisions and ego battles, and are now struggling to come to grips with the grave allegations against a man who could have been their standard-bearer in 2012.

Aubry, seen as a party stalwart with little charisma, may seek the Socialist endorsement in primaries later this year. Some French commentators have dubbed her the “anti-DSK.’’

Pollsters, however, say Strauss-Kahn’s arrest could heighten the political fortunes of Aubry’s predecessor, Francois Hollande, who has been gaining in recent polls. He was the longtime partner of Segolene Royal, whom Sarkozy beat for the presidency in 2007. Hollande and Royal split up after the last campaign, and she has been out of favor among top party bosses since then.

The turmoil in the Socialist party — and potentially for Sarkozy, too, because he backed Strauss-Kahn for the IMF post — could also play into the hands of the National Front, France’s resurgent far-right party.

“Unfortunately, the extreme right will be reinforced with the argument, ‘We always told you: They are all corrupt, they are all depraved,’ ’’ political analyst Dominique Moisi said. “That kind of anti-elite feeling is the basis for the National Front electorate.’’

France holds its presidential elections in two rounds: a first vote in April to winnow down an often-crowded field; then a decisive runoff two weeks later.

The IMF chief was jailed without bail after an arraignment Monday that shocked many in France, where it is illegal to broadcast images of suspects in handcuffs due to the presumption of innocence.

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