Paris: Nicolas Sarkozy was forced onto the defensive Thursday over his legal woes in the first debate of right-wing rivals for the French presidency, widely expected to be won by the right.
Former president Sarkozy, who is trailing ex-prime minister Alain Juppe in the race for the right-wing nomination, was challenged about the various investigations in which he is entangled.
"After 37 years in politics my criminal record is clean," Sarkozy said, claiming he had been hounded by investigators and subjected to "slander" during probes for influence-peddling and suspected illegal funding of his failed 2012 re-election campaign.
"Do you think I would take part in this campaign if I had anything on my conscience?" a visibly exasperated Sarkozy said.
Thursday`s debate was the first among the seven candidates for next month`s primary.
The former leader of Sarkozy`s Republicans party, Jean-Francois Cope, said he had hoped Sarkozy would be a reformer when he came to power in 2007 on a promise to shake up the established order.
"Ten years ago, I and millions of French people hoped for the change that Nicolas Sarkozy offered for our country.
"That change unfortunately never took place," he said, accusing Sarkozy of ducking the hard choices.
Sarkozy, 61, argued his hand had been constrained by "the worst (economic) crisis the world had experienced since 1929" and vowed "strong, energetic" leadership if he returned to power after five years of Socialist rule.
The right-wing primary is widely seen as the main battle for the presidency.
Terrorism and immigration were among the top topics after a string of jihadist attacks that have killed 238 people in the past two years.
The winner of the two-stage November 20-27 contest is expected to meet -- and defeat -- far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the second round of the election in May.
Polls show Bordeaux mayor Juppe -- a 71-year-old moderate -- leading Sarkozy by between eight and 14 percentage points, with the five other candidates, including Cope and Sarkozy`s former prime minister Francois Fillon trailing behind.
Thursday`s debate was far more sedate than the debates between US presidential rivals Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
But both Sarkozy and Juppe faced questions about scandals in their past.
Juppe was given a 14-month suspended term in 2004 and barred from holding elected office for a year over a party funding scandal.
"I cannot be the scapegoat," he said, insisting he had not profited personally from his misdeed.
Sarkozy, 61, has been accused of tapping into fears about immigration and Islam to win back the keys to the Elysee Palace.
Le Pen has accused him of "aping" her proposals in efforts to bridge the gap with Juppe, who has campaigned as a unifier.Sarkozy has unveiled a slew of populist proposals, including a pledge to hold referendums on tightening immigration and jailing suspected Islamist radicals.
Thursday`s debate is the first of three before the first round of the primary on November 20.
The two top vote-getters will then debate one-on-one before the November 27 run-off.
Two in five respondents told an Oxoda opinion poll that unemployment was their top concern, followed by terrorism and immigration.
All seven right-wing candidates said French companies should have greater freedom to extend working hours.
Stubbornly high unemployment has been a scourge of President Francois Hollande, who has conditioned his re-election bid on achieving a "credible" fall in joblessness.
The deeply unpopular Socialist leader will only announce in December whether he will stand for a second term.
US-style primaries are a relatively new phenomenon in France.
This time around, polls show the Socialist candidate being eliminated in the first round of voting, coming in after the conservative candidate and Le Pen.
In the final duel against the far-right leader, the conservative candidate is expected to come up trumps.