'Blairite' minister lays claim to Chirac's crown

The long-promised public confrontation between the ageing heavyweight champion of French politics and the spry young contender is about to burst into the open. In a sense, it has already begun.

President Jacques Chirac, the wily veteran of a thousand punch-ups with his enemies and allies alike, summoned to the Elysée Palace last week his former protégé and towel-carrier, Nicolas Sarkozy, the man who wants - and expects - to replace him as leader of the French centre-right.

Their meeting was billed by both sides as an occasion for friendly sparring but will probably come to be seen as the first round in a contest that will extend right up to the presidential election in three years' time.

With his patented brand of friendly menace, President Chirac, 71, warned Mr Sarkozy, 49, against running for the leadership of the main party of the centre-right, the UMP, when the position falls vacant next month. If Mr Sarkozy did so, the President said, he would sack him from his job as Finance Minister in the government of the floundering Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

In recent months, the frenetic, straight-talking Mr Sarkozy has become the runaway favourite of French centre-right voters, ousting Mr Chirac from a status he has held, on and off, for two decades. If he remained Finance Minister and captured the presidency of the UMP, a party created as a platform for Mr Chirac, he would be in an unassailable position to seize the "nomination" for the centre-right in the presidential election in 2007.

President Chirac, who will be 74 when the election is held, has not revealed, even to friends, whether he plans to seek a third term in the Elysée Palace. There is a widespread assumption that he wishes to do so, not least to thwart the ambitions of Mr Sarkozy, once a favourite with the entire Chirac family, now regarded as a traitor and an upstart.

After the President's warning, Mr Sarkozy said that he would go away to consider his position. Over the past couple of days, the Finance Minister has let his decision be known through statements from political allies.

If he must choose between becoming president of the UMP and remaining pilot of a rapidly recovering French economy, Mr Sarkozy will choose - both. In other words, he has decided to call the President's bluff: a sign of what Sarkozy supporters, and others on the centre-right, have been saying for weeks. President Chirac is no longer the force he was; the Chirac era is already over.

The President, the Finance Minister's friends say, would not dare to sack his most popular and successful minister. If he does so, a struggling government, repudiated by the electorate in regional and European elections, will become a mockery, unable to push through even the semblance of its reform programme.

Having made such a public issue of the UMP presidency, can Mr Chirac back down? Confrontation seems inevitable, either next month, when the current UMP president, Alain Juppé, steps down, or in September, which is the deadline for candidatures to replace him.

Mr Sarkozy was long regarded as a clone of Mr Chirac. He now regards himself - and sells himself both domestically and abroad - as a kind of Chirac antidote, a man who acts rather than talks, a man interested in what works for France rather than ideology or what works for himself. He is popular with the British government, which sees in him a kind of Gallic, centre-right Tony Blair. He was recently invited to dinner at 11 Downing Street by Gordon Brown and had a meeting next door with the Prime Minister.

Mr Sarkozy also has the first requirement of a successful politician: infernal luck. He was moved from the Interior Ministry to the Finance Ministry by Mr Chirac in March in the hope that his ambitions would be broken by the impossible task of boosting the French economy while repairing a runaway state budget deficit.

Since then - little thanks to Mr Sarkozy, but that will not stop him taking the credit - the French economy has risen, near-miraculously from its deathbed, with 2.3 per cent growth forecast this year.