PARIS (Reuters) - Turkey does not belong in the European Union, the two leading conservative candidates for France's 2017 presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppe, said on Thursday, restating their opposition to continuing accession talks with Ankara.
Both also told a televised debate ahead of the Nov. 20 and 27 vote for the conservative candidate that President Bashar al-Assad cannot be part of the solution in Syria.
Whoever wins the conservative primaries has a strong chance of being elected France's next president in May. France currently officially backs Turkey's EU accession talks.
"I've said a long time ago that Turkey does not belong in the European Union and the current evolution of the regime in Turkey makes this even more unlikely," said former prime minister Alain Juppe, who leads in opinion polls.
Juppe said he disagreed with a deal between the European Union and Turkey under which Ankara helps stem migrant arrivals to the EU in return for easing visa requirements for Turkish travelers and re-starting accession talks.
"It's time to put an end to all that," ex-president Sarkozy said. "Turkey does not belong in the EU."
But the bloc must keep talking to Turkey, Juppe said: "Of course the Turkish regime is not evolving as we would like on the democratic front but it is a big country and a neighbor with which we must engage."
The EU last week stepped up criticism of Turkey's crackdown on opponents since the failure of a coup attempt in July, drawing a sharp retort from Ankara, which accused Europe of failing to grasp the threats it faces.
Asked about how to deal with the war in Syria, both conservative candidates said Assad must eventually go.
"Bashar al-Assad, and I agree with Alain Juppe on this, has 250,000 deaths on his conscience. It cannot be a prerequisite but M.Bashar al-Assad will never -- or we are not humanists -- represent in my view the future of Syria," Sarkozy said.
(Reporting by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Catherine Evans)