Europe a non-issue for French presidential hopefuls in debate

(From left) Mr Bruno Le Maire, Mr Juppe, Ms Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Mr Sarkozy, Mr Jean-Francois Cope, Mr Jean- Frederic Poisson and Mr Fillon in the first televised debate between the seven presidential hopefuls. It was focused on deficit and sp
(From left) Mr Bruno Le Maire, Mr Juppe, Ms Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Mr Sarkozy, Mr Jean-Francois Cope, Mr Jean- Frederic Poisson and Mr Fillon in the first televised debate between the seven presidential hopefuls. It was focused on deficit and spending cuts and labour law, in a likely reflection of the political climate.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PARIS • Two hours, one-minute speeches and zero mention of Bre- xit or Europe.

That is the best way to recap the first direct confrontation among the French presidential hopefuls.

The six men and one woman in the nomination race for the mainstream-right Republicans spent the first hour sparring over deficit and spending cuts, with the most notable clash over whether government employees should work 37 or 39 hours.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy is seeking to close the gap with Mr Alain Juppe, who once served as prime minister and is the current front runner.

The first direct confrontation of France's presidential election next April was aired on prime time and was singularly focused on Budget deficits, labour law and taking potshots at Mr Francois Hollande, the most unpopular French leader of the modern era and a likely opponent.

The fact that Britain is leaving the European Union was never mentioned, nor for that matter was Europe - a likely reflection of the broader political climate, where countries are becoming increasingly more inward-looking.

Pollster Elabe judged that Mr Juppe maintained his lead among those who watched, while Mr Sarkozy remained in second place.

Former premier Francois Fillon was most improved, but still trailing in third position. 

  • 35%

    Of 885 voters who watched the debate said Mr Juppe won

  • 21%

    Pronounced Mr Sarkozy the winner

  • 13%

    Said Mr Fillon won the debate

Among 885 voters who watched the debate, 35 per cent pronounced Mr Juppe the winner, compared with 21 per cent for Mr Sarkozy and 13 per cent for Mr Fillon, according to Elabe.

The most animated banter unfolded in the second half over who had the least personal integrity.

Mr Juppe, who was once convicted of political corruption and banned from public office for a year, said he refused to be blamed for transgressions he did not profit from. 

He said the judge had stated "there was no personal enrichment" in his case, adding: "I have stood for election four times since then and won three times."

Mr Sarkozy insisted he has not been convicted of anything despite multiple investigations.

He said: "After 37 years in politics, my judicial record remains untouched. I've never been condemned. But for the past five years, I've been the most investigated Frenchman."

Three more debates are scheduled and the primaries will be held in a two-round vote on Nov 20 and Nov 27.

BLOOMBERG, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2016, with the headline 'Europe a non-issue for French presidential hopefuls in debate'. Print Edition | Subscribe