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Hollande endures 'ghost' jibes as opposition holds fresh debate
[PARIS] As Francois Hollande kept France guessing over whether he will seek re-election as president, the resurgent opposition was set to return to the debate stage on Thursday.
A description by The New York Times of Mr Hollande as the "living dead" provided fodder for his gleeful critics this week.
The paper was alluding to polls showing the Socialist being annihilated if he runs, with whoever wins the centre-right nomination expected to charge on to the presidency in May.
Seven conservative hopefuls including ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy and former premier Alain Juppe are to make their cases to the voters for a second time Thursday ahead of their November primary.
The brash Mr Sarkozy, 61, is waging an uphill fight for a return to the Elysee Palace he occupied from 2007 to 2012, lagging far behind the mild-mannered Mr Juppe, 71.
The latest poll gave Mr Juppe 37 per cent to Mr Sarkozy's 31 per cent, with the other five centre-right candidates bringing up the rear less than three weeks from the first round of the primary on Nov 20.
Thursday's debate is the second of four, with a final one-on-one debate likely to pit Mr Sarkozy against Mr Juppe on Nov 24, three days before the run-off for the nomination.
Mr Juppe is tipped to win the centre-right mantle and then take on - and defeat - far-right leader Marine Le Pen after a first round of the presidential poll on April 23 that is expected to winnow out the centre-left candidate, whether it is 62-year-old Mr Hollande or another.
Mr Hollande, France's most unpopular president in 60 years, has yet to announce whether he plans to stand for re-election, saving the decision until early December while his support base melts away.
"Many... consider him already dead and buried, or at best, the ghost of the Elysee," wrote the satirical weekly Canard Enchaine, picking up on the Halloween-themed New York Times piece.
For its part the Paris daily Le Parisien said the US paper must be unaware of the "French adage that in politics you are never really dead".
But the writing appears to be on the wall.
One of Mr Hollande's staunchest allies, Prime Minister Manuel Valls, broke ranks last week, reacting to an explosive tell-all book in which the president took swipes at judges, the national football team and even his own government's policies.
Mr Valls, 54, spoke of his "anger" and the "shame" felt in Socialist ranks, opening up a breach with his boss that prompted speculation the prime minister might try to step into Mr Hollande's shoes.
But Mr Valls' pursuit of his long-held and thinly veiled ambition looks to be just as doomed as Mr Hollande's bid, with a poll published on Oct 26 showing both with a humiliating nine per cent of voter support.
Both are tied to the same dismal record of failing to combat 10 per cent unemployment and kick-start a moribund economy.
Meanwhile, National Front leader Ms Le Pen is coasting on a surge in anti-migrant sentiment triggered by a string of jihadist attacks over the past two years and the massive influx of migrants into Europe.
Ms Le Pen, 48, is expected to take second place or even win the first round of the presidential election. Unopposed on the far right, she boasts some 30 per cent support in polls - up from 18 per cent in the 2012 election.
Mr Sarkozy has been accused of borrowing Ms Le Pen's themes, tapping into fears about immigration and Islam.
Mr Juppe, currently France's most popular politician, is taking the opposite tack, positioning himself as a unifier.
Ahead of Thursday's debate, Mr Sarkozy said his platform made him better placed to take on Ms Le Pen.
Citing the example of Austria's far-right Freedom Party, which narrowly lost a presidential poll in May, Mr Sarkozy said: "In all these countries where the right has not taken on (the far right's) body of ideas... it's a disaster".
A Sarkozy candidacy would ensure that "all these people don't swell the ranks of the National Front", he said.