Nicolas Sarkozy: Le Candidat

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After De Gaulle, Pompidou, Giscard d'Estaing and Chirac, enter Nicolas Sarkozy, a man with the self-confidence of a Bonaparte and the hungry good looks of an undersized Count Dracula.

Tomorrow, M. Sarkozy will be enthroned as the candidate of the ruling party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), for the April-May presidential elections. M. Sarkozy, 51, is the only candidate for the party "nomination" and likely to take 90 per cent or more of the votes. The only difficulty is that the previous era, that of Jacques Chirac, refuses to end. Even at 74 years old, even with no backing from his own party, M. Chirac cannot see the game is up. Chirac, the arch-manipulator, cannot accept that he has been outmanipulated. The waning forces of "Chiraquie" insist, however, that the president's hostility to M. Sarkozy goes much deeper than that.

To be Président de la République, they say, requires some kind of mystical metamorphosis from party-political grub to national guide and uncle-confessor (or maybe aunt-confessor). "Sarko" is too small, they say, both physically and spiritually. He is too divisive, too nervous, too brittle and not French-looking enough.

Jean-François Probst, a former Chirac adviser, said: "To become president, you have to be able to reach out beyond your own political camp, over the left-right barrier. Sarkozy can only divide." Because Chirac not only detested him but also underestimated him - and perhaps also sneakingly admired him - Sarkozy has been able to get away with slow-motion regicide in the past four years.

From within Chirac-appointed governments, he has campaigned relentlessly against Chirac. He audaciously hijacked the UMP, the party created as a vehicle for the President only five years ago. He declared himself the face of France's future; a young and dynamic man who could save France from the extreme right, extreme left, and the mushy, immobile centre. He was the candidate of "rupture" with the muddled policies of the past.

M. Sarkozy likes to boast about his tactical brilliance, in the way Shakespearean villains talk to the audience in Machiavellian "asides". This week, M. Sarkozy told journalists travelling with him to Corsica: "All the other (politicians on the centre-right) had their chances, Borloo, Raffarin, Juppé, Fillon, Alliot-Marie. They thought that to succeed Chirac they had to flatter Chirac. Only I took the risk of attacking him." It remains to be seen how (not whether) Chirac will take his revenge.

The President could run as an independent candidate (implausible but possible) and split the centre-right vote. Alternatively, he might advise his remaining supporters to withhold their support from Sarkozy or even vote for the Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal.

Personal enmity apart, is Chirac right? Does Nicolas Sarkozy lack the basic qualities needed to be the French head of state? Might he even be a dangerous president, tipping a skittish and divided nation into outright revolt? Alternatively, is he another Chirac in disguise? Although Sarkozy talks of his admiration for economic liberalism, his programme is stuffed with proposals for state intervention and new social rights.

Who, or what, is Nicolas Sarkozy? Marcel Gauchet, political historian and editor of the magazine Débat, said: "Sarkozy is neither an orthodox Gaullist, nor a Chiraquian. At one point, he seemed to represent a kind of French Thatcherism, Now he has plunged into a kind of social Gaullism. I don't know who he is."

Nicolas Sarkozy de Nagy-Bocsa was born in Paris on 28 January 1955. His father, Pal, was a Hungarian, aristocratic charmer and refugee from communism. His mother, Andrée, is a formidable, half-Jewish lawyer, who supported and raised Sarkozy and his two brothers after their father abandoned the family almost without a franc.

This part of Sarkozy's life story is startlingly similar to that of Ségolène Royal, whose own father left her in some penury in her teens. Unlike Mme Royal, Sarkozy is one of the few successful politicians in France not to have passed through the usual finishing schools of the French elite, the grandes écoles, and the civil service officer training corps, ENA (Ecole Nationale d'Administration).

The young Sarko - long-haired but anti-leftist - was a law student and Gaullist political activist. He became the youngest man ever to be elected mayor of a large French town when he defied Chirac (already) and ran successfully in the posh western Parisian suburb of Neuilly in 1983. By the mid-1980s, when Chirac was mayor of Paris, the young mayor became one of the Gaullist leader's closest confidants. He became, in fact, a confidant of the entire Chirac clan.

Although married with two sons, he became romantically entangled with Chirac's daughter, Claude. The relationship ended amicably enough, at first. Sarkozy was a witness at Claude's wedding to a journalist in 1992. At about the same time, Sarkozy met Cécilia, the woman who was to become his second wife. The second Madame Sarkozy was then - implausibly - married to an ageing, gushing French TV presenter called Jacques Martin, a sort of French Hughie Green. She became friends with Sarkozy's first wife, Marie, before falling for Sarkozy. There was a double divorce but not before M. Martin walked into Neuilly town hall and punched Sarkozy on the nose.

The friendship with the Chiracs collapsed in 1993-4 when Sarkozy - then budget minister - let it be known that he was going to support Edouard Balladur, the prime minister and former Chirac acolyte, in the 1995 presidential election. Jacques Chirac felt politically betrayed. Worse, Chirac's wife and daughter felt personally humiliated by someone who had been allowed to cross the threshold of family intimacy. Bernadette Chirac is said to have remarked: "And to think, he has seen us in our night clothes..."

Sarkozy backed the wrong horse in 1995. Chirac saw off Balladur and became president. Sarkozy worked hard to establish himself as an important figure in French politics without Chirac's support. Brought back into government by Chirac as interior minister in 2002, he threw himself with whirlwind energy into "solving" the problems of crime and insecurity. Much of his claim to be an effective, can-do politician rests on his achievements as the French "home secretary". Official figures suggest crime has been reduced by nearly 10 per cent in five years. Opponents suggest the numbers have been massaged.

And then there were the riots of November 2005. Just before the accidental deaths of two teenagers fleeing the police, Sarkozy spoke of suburban youth gangs as racaille (scum) and said that he would clean them out with a Kärcher (a high-powered hose). Rioting suburban kids, and opponents, suggested that Sarkozy's comments had fuelled the violence which followed. To use such language, opponents said, was the hallmark of Le Pen and the far right. Sarkozy retorted that the words were the language of the streets.

His popularity on the right and centre rose. The left convinced itself that he was an authoritarian crypto-fascist. This is simplistic and unfair but may yet come back to haunt him. As Sarkozy's challenge to Chirac grew, the forces of Chiraquie did everything possible to destroy him. Or so at least Sarkozy believes.

He blames Chirac's people for leaking, and worsening, his rift with his wife in the spring of 2004. Cécilia ran away to New York with a French PR executive, leaving Nicolas and their young son, Louis. She was prevailed upon to return - rather aggressively, according to some friends of the couple. She is now re-installed not only as Mme Sarkozy but also as one of his chief political aides, with an office of her own at the interior ministry.

At roughly the same time, leaks also appeared in the press suggesting Sarkozy was corrupt. In fact, unusually on the French centre-right, Sarkozy's reputation is utterly clean. The allegations were traced to a friend of the Chiraquian foreign minister, and later Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin. De Villepin adamantly denies any attempt to harm Sarkozy - a man that he refers to privately as "the dwarf".

Sarkozy is a new kind of French politician but how new is open to question. He is arrogant rather than pompous; he is driven, he insists, by results, rather than ideology or egotism. He encourages his officials to call him tu or Nicolas, rather than Monsieur le Ministre. He does not buy, in bulk, the standard prejudices of the French right. He is authoritarian and ready to crack down on illegal immigration but has campaigned for "positive discrimination" in favour of second-generation Arab and black French men and women. He opposed, initially, the law banning Muslim headscarves from state schools.

In his best-selling book Témoignage - about to be published in English - he brilliantly analyses the French paradox. Here is a country seemingly dedicated to solidarity and equality, whose entire social structure, from excessive pension rights for public sector workers to rigid business hierarchies, seems designed to protect the "haves" and exclude the have-nots, whether jobless kids in the banlieues or young white, middle-class students.

However, M. Sarkozy is maddeningly imprecise about what he would do to bring about the "rupture" that he preaches. If he does defeat Mme Royal (and M. Chirac), his greatest enemy will be his reputation. Just as President Chirac would prefer to see a President Royal, many on the French hard left would love to see a President Sarkozy. Even modest Sarkozy attempts at reform of state spending or the jobs market will bring instant accusations of "ultra-libéralisme" and "crypto-fascisme" and a score of other "ismes". Protest is inevitable; it will take a steady hand to avoid an outright and destructive battle on the streets.

France needs a courageous man (or woman) to move things forward, but also one capable of projecting a sense of steadiness, fairness and calm. Sarkozy may or may not have the courage. Even some of his supporters are beginning to doubt his capacity to generate calm (Mme Royal's great strength). Sarkozy has appeared anxious, even jittery, in recent weeks. Officially, his self-confidence and sense of mission remain intact."I don't want to be president," he said. "I have to be president. It's not the same thing."

A Life in Brief

BORN Nicolas Paul Stéphane Sarkozy de Nagy Bocsa, 28 January 1955, in the 17th arrondissement of Paris. Son of Pal Sarkozy de Nagy Bocsa, advertising executive, and Andrée Mallah, lawyer.

FAMILY Wife Cécilia, one son, Louis.

EDUCATION Cours Saint Louis de Monceau (private Catholic school) and law department of University of Paris, Nanterre.

CAREER Budget minister 1993-5. Minister of the Interior 2002-4 and since June 2005. Minister of Finance May-November 2004. President of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) 2004 to present.

HE SAYS "Charisma is only a problem for those who don't have any."

THEY SAY "I used to say that he was the son of Mitterrand for his Machiavellism and the son of Chirac for his cheek. I was wrong. He lacks Chirac's warmth and Mitterrand's cultivation." Jean-François Probst, former Chirac adviser