PARIS: French President Francois Hollande scrambled to contain the damage from a series of embarrassing remarks he made in a tell-all book that gave right-wing rivals ammunition to attack him in a televised debate.
The Socialist president said he “deeply regretted” comments that upset senior lawyers and judges in a book of interviews with journalists that has wrong-footed even many of Hollande’s closest aides.
Hollande described the justice system as “a cowardly institution” and accused senior judges of “keeping their heads down.”
On Friday, two days after the remarks emerged, the president insisted his comments had been misinterpreted.
“I deeply regret what has been taken as an insult by judges whose courage and devotion to their difficult work I admire every day,” Hollande said in a letter to the country’s top judges.
The damage however had already been done. One of France’s most senior legal officers, Bertrand Louvel, president of the highest appeal court, the Cour de Cassation, attacked Hollande’s “degrading vision” of the justice system.
Hollande also told the two Le Monde journalists for the book “Un president ne devrait pas dire ca…” (“A president shouldn’t say that…”) that his former partner Valerie Trierweiler was “an unhappy woman” and he took aim at France’s national football team, saying they were “ill-mannered kids who had become mega-rich stars without any preparation.”
Alain Juppe, the former prime minister who is favorite to clinch the right-wing nomination for president in next year’s election, said the comments showed Hollande had “seriously failed in the duties of his office and showed once again that he is not up to the job.”
Ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, who lost to Hollande in the 2012 election, tore into him in Thursday’s debate of right-wing candidates, asking: “How far will Francois Hollande go in sullying the presidential office?”
Hollande has suffered some of the lowest approval ratings of a post-war president after four years in office clouded by stubbornly high unemployment and a series of devastating terror attacks.
Despite his unpopularity, the absence of an obvious Socialist alternative leaves the way open for Hollande to make a bid for a second term.
He has said he will make his decision on whether to stand in December.
But some senior Socialists admitted the revelations in the book were a further setback for the president.
Party leader Jean-Christophe Cambadelis said he was convinced Hollande wanted to stand again but that he was “not making things easy for himself.”
A junior minister openly suggested that leftist former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg, who quit the government over a disagreement with Hollande, would beat him in the Socialist nominating contest in January.
Montebourg is viewed as a maverick, but higher education minister Thierry Mandon said Wednesday: “He can beat [Hollande] because with the way French political life is breaking up… anything is possible.”
While Hollande’s woes dominated the week, polls showed that in the conservative contest Juppe had emerged from Thursday’s debate with his lead over Sarkozy reinforced.
Juppe portrayed himself as above the fray while Sarkozy was forced to defend his 2007-17 term as president in the debate, which brought together all seven hopefuls for the right-wing nomination.
Some 35 percent told pollsters that Juppe was the most convincing in the debate, while Sarkozy scored 21 percent.