Ambitious Thatcher admirer set to exploit Chirac's humiliation

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The Independent Online

France's rejection of the EU constitution was a clear victory for the hard left - but could open the door to the man the French left loves to hate.

France's rejection of the EU constitution was a clear victory for the hard left - but could open the door to the man the French left loves to hate.

With President Jacques Chirac, 72, humiliated by last night's result, Nicolas Sarkozy, 50, a clear-speaking, bumptious admirer of the Thatcher-Blair revolution in Britain, seems odds-on favourite to win the centre-right "nomination" for the 2007 presidential election.

M. Sarkozy, a former Chirac protégé, likes to present himself as a kind of anti-Chirac, an energetic, can-do politician, who wants to be judged by results, not the capacity to cling stubbornly to office.

The referendum campaign has, however, revealed a more fragile, vulnerable and, some say, cynical M. Sarkozy than the image that he has crafted in the past two years.

Last Thursday, the former interior and finance minister admitted on television that there were difficulties in his marriage. Since Cécilia Sarkozy is not only his wife but his chef de cabinet - or chief political adviser - this implied an abrupt loss of voltage in France's premier "power couple".

Even before this development, M. Sarkozy had played an enigmatic, lacklustre part in the referendum campaign. As president of President Chirac's centre-right party, the UMP, he was, ex officio, one of the leaders of the "yes" camp. Often, however, he seemed to have made a tactical side bet on the "non".

In his three television appearances, President Chirac tried to reassure left-wing voters by saying that the proposed EU constitution would help to preserve France's "social model".

To this, M. Sarkozy retorted, in effect, "what is so great about a social model which produces 10 per cent unemployment and high levels of illiteracy and poverty?" This may be a reasonable question but it handed ammunition to the left-wing nonistes. Since defeat for the "yes'' camp would be a crushing defeat for le vieux (the old man), politicians on both sides cast doubt on M. Sarkozy's real motives.

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