In French Campaign, A Flurry of Faux Pas

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 12, 2007

PARIS, April 11 -- Although the French presidential campaign sometimes seems like an election in search of an issue, more often it appears to be candidates groping for gaffes. In particular, two candidates recently stumbled over the subjects of pedophilia and masturbation.

Socialist Party candidate Ségolène Royal had a lock on verbal contretemps early in the campaign with a series of questionable statements on international issues. But this being France, where egalitarianism is so important, she is now sharing the stage with other leading candidates, including front-runner Nicolas Sarkozy from the ruling Union for a Popular Movement party and Jean-Marie Le Pen from the anti-immigrant National Front.

In the interest of full disclosure, none of the candidates admits to committing a gaffe.

Le Pen, 78, was first out of the box. During a candidates' forum last week in Paris organized by Elle magazine, Le Pen, who describes himself as antiabortion, said he opposed the free distribution of condoms in schools. Instead, "for those who feel the urge, I suggest the manu militari," he said, using a Latin phrase as a euphemism for masturbation. "It's a much simpler method."

Sarkozy followed over the weekend in an interview in Philosophie magazine, saying he was "inclined to think that people are born pedophiles, and that it is also a problem we do not know how to manage." Sarkozy also said that teenage suicide was genetic, caused by an "underlying fragility and pain."

His comments were ridiculed by the other leading candidates, including Le Pen, who called them "absurd," and François Bayrou of the small Union for French Democracy party, who termed them "chilling."

In a radio interview, the Catholic archbishop of Paris, Monsignor André Vingt-Trois, said, "What seems most serious to me is the idea that you can't change the course of destiny."

With only 11 days remaining before the April 22 vote, the gaffes appear to have the potential to sway undecided voters -- as much as 40 percent of the electorate, according to some polls. And they give rival candidates free shots at some of the top contenders in a race with little margin for error.

For now, Sarkozy is the front-runner in all opinion polls. The most recent survey by the Ipsos polling group showed him with 30.5 percent support, compared with 23 percent for Royal, 19.5 percent for Bayrou and 13 percent for Le Pen. Assuming no one gets more than 50 percent on April 22, the top two vote-getters will face off in a final ballot May 6.

Sarkozy and Le Pen -- who are battling for many of the same hard-line, conservative voters -- engaged in their own spat over the weekend after Le Pen, during a radio interview Sunday, hailed himself as a native son while describing Sarkozy as "a candidate from an immigrant background."

Sarkozy, whose father was a Hungarian immigrant, appeared to realize he had more to gain than to lose from the attack. He told a television interviewer: "He's right. We are different, very different."

Asked during the radio interview whether his immigration policies would have barred Sarkozy's family from entering France, Le Pen said, "France could have done without Nicolas Sarkozy, who would have perhaps had a very nice career in Hungary."

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