Chirac, Sarkozy and a very civil war

The French President and his would-be successor are locked in a struggle to the death that is partly personal, partly political and utterly poisonous

To kill the father is never easy. Especially if the father fights back. All power struggles are fascinating. The struggle between President Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, his would-be successor on the right side of French politics, is elemental; Oedipal. They were once political father and son, or at least son-in-law. Sarkozy once had a close relationship - some say a love affair - with Chirac's younger daughter, Claude.

Chirac and Sarkozy fell out 12 years ago. They now vigorously detest one another. And yet Nicolas Sarkozy is still one of the few politicians whom Chirac addresses as tu rather than the formal vous. With his energy, his cheek, his uncloaked ambition, his impetuousness, his tactical brilliance, his occasional tactical stupidity, Sarkozy resembles the young Chirac. There are also important differences.

Sarkozy seems at least to want to DO something; not just to BE something. That may make him a more successful president (if elected) or a more dangerous one. For three years now, he has been cutting away "papa" Chirac's feeding tubes one by one. The centre-right political party which Chirac created as a life-support system for his second presidential term, has been wheeled away before the president's eyes and converted into a giant sound system to trumpet the younger man's ambitions (young in French political terms anyway).

During the next five months, before France votes for a new president on 22 April and 6 May, the estranged son plans to take over the whole of the family business without permission. Worse than that, he has been telling the world that the old man is a fool; that the son will run France plc very differently; that he will make friends with the old man's old enemies, les Anglo-Saxons; that he has the vision and the guts to modernise and liberalise France that the old man has always lacked.

President Chirac is 74 next Wednesday. He has spent 40 years in frontline politics with few successes to show for it. His health is doubtful. The last couple of years have been a chain of calamities: the rejection by France of a European constitution which was mostly Chirac's idea; the suburban riots; the defeat on the streets of plans to liberalise French job law for the young. Chirac's political temperature is below the chart; his heartbeat of popularity on the right - once so vigorous - barely shows on the monitor (1 per cent in a recent poll).

Can Chirac summon enough energy, if not to extend his political life, at least to destroy the ambitions of his turbulent, rejected and detested "son"? It has been clear for many months that Sarkozy, 51, the diminutive, frenetic, plain-talking Interior Minister, will be the Next Big Thing on the right side of French politics. It has been clear that he will be the main centre-right candidate in next spring's presidential election. It has also been clear for many months that Chirac would do all in his power to wreck Sarkozy's chances, even if that meant letting in a left-wing president. What has been unclear is whether Chirac still had the strength to do so.

In the past few weeks and days, something new has happened to awake the President's hopes and his instincts for political combat, according to a senior Chiraquian loyalist. The crushing victory of Ségolène Royal in the Socialist "primary" a week ago seemed to be bad news for the French right. Here was a woman who was attracting support from left, right and centre. Here was a politician, who because she was a woman, offered the "different" kind of leader which France craved, without threatening the abrupt change of direction feared by "Middle France". President Chirac, according to the senior source, believes that Mme Royal is his God-sent, or Socialist-sent, opportunity to spring from his death bed. Or at least to scupper Sarkozy.

He has convinced himself that he can yet, at 74, emerge as the only politician on the right capable of deflating Royal's pretensions. He believes that it takes a "grandfather" (ie himself) to put France's would-be "mother" in her place.

All of this may well be the fantasy of a desperate and vengeful old man, encouraged by a personal and political entourage, terrified by their bleak prospects in the post-Chirac era. No matter. As Sarkozy sinks in the polls in coming days, as seems possible, the forces of Chiraquie will redouble their efforts to drag him down. They will now be able to say that they are not seeking to divide the right - heaven forbid! - but to save it, from Sarkozy and from his certain defeat by Ségolène Royal.

In other words, President Chirac believes that, finally, his rotten luck may have changed.

For three years or more Sarkozy has had an extraordinary run of fortune in his campaign to supplant Chirac. Almost everything has gone his way: Chirac's poor health; the President's series of political disasters; the rapid collapse in popularity of the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, the handsome, unelected bureaucrat-poet promoted by Chirac two years ago to bar Sarkozy's way.

Even the murky Clearstream affair - a clumsy attempt by persons unknown in 2004 to smear Sarkozy as financially corrupt - ended up helping him. Whatever the truth of this bizarre affair, many in France believe that Chirac and Villepin tried, at the very least, to foster obviously false allegations in order to destroy their colleague and rival. What are the origins of these poisonous hatreds at the top of the French governing party? They are partly political; partly deeply personal.

In 1983, Sarkozy, at the age of 28, was elected the youngest mayor in France, in one of the richest communes in France, Neuilly-sur-Seine, a ghetto for the wealthy and powerful between Paris proper and the skyscrapers of La Défense.

By the mid-1980s, when Chirac was Mayor of Paris next door and plotting the second of his four presidential campaigns (two defeats, two victories), the young Mayor of Neuilly became one of the then Gaullist leader's closest confidants. He became, in fact, a confidant of the entire Chirac clan. Although Sarkozy was married, he became romantically entangled with Chirac's daughter, Claude. Chirac's wife, Bernardette, is said to have regarded him as the perfect son-in-law. 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 the woman who was to become his second wife, Cecilia. The friendship with the Chirac clan collapsed circa 1994 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, a frontier which is jealously guarded in high bourgeois France. Bernardette Chirac is said to have remarked: "And to think, he has seen us in our night-clothes ..."

But Sarkozy backed the wrong horse in 1995. Chirac saw off Balladur and became President. For a while, Sarkozy was banished to outer darkness. He wheedled his way back into semi-confidence and enjoyed spectacular success when he became a barn-storming interior minister after Chirac's re-election in 2002. With what seemed indecent haste to Chirac - and not just Chirac - Sarkozy used this popularity to launch a de facto campaign to succeed his boss four years before the next election.

By playing on Chirac's age and uncertain future, by having the courage and cheek to show his hand first, Sarkozy turned many centre-right politicians and grassroots supporters of the governing party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) into Chiraquien-Sarkozistes and then Sarkozistes pure and simple. By the time that Chirac tried to stop him from becoming UMP president in 2004, it was too late. Sarko's support in the party, created two years earlier to idolise Chirac, was too strong.

Sarkozy started to talk of "rupture" with 30 years of failed, centrist policies. In other words, he began to campaign not just against the left but against Chirac - from within the government. He was too popular to fire. Instead, he and his supporters believe the forces of Chiraquie resorted to dirty tricks.

There was the Clearstream affair: a bogus allegation that Sarkozy, and others, had illegal bank accounts in Luxembourg. Worse, perhaps, there was the deliberate leaking to the press in spring 2004 of rumours - which proved correct - that there were serious problems behind the façade of the seemingly perfect power-marriage between Nicolas and Cecilia. Mme Sarkozy ran away to New York with another man but was eventually persuaded to come back. Sarkozy still holds Chirac's people responsible for spreading the original rumours and turning a domestic rift into a crisis.

Overall, however, Sarko's luck held. Chirac was humiliated by the EU referendum defeat and made to seem old and out of touch. He had a mini-stroke or "small vascular incident", which reminded everyone that even he could not go on for ever.

The riots in 2005 might have damaged Sarkozy. The Elysée Palace certainly hoped so. The Interior Minister's rough language - describing suburban youth gangs as racaille (scum) - had helped to raise tempers in the abandoned and disaffected banlieues. In fact, the Interior Minister was seen, post-riots, by many white middle-class voters as their best protection against suburban violence. Sarkozy's popularity rose again.

In recent months, there has been an unseemly running battle between the number two in the French government, Sarkozy, and the President and Prime Minister. At various times, both sides have called for, or agreed, a truce, only to start assaulting each other in scarcely coded words a few days later.

The Chirac camp - reduced to only 50 or so loyalists among the 353 UMP members of the National Assembly - has complained of the undemocratic, authoritarian, Sarkozy-idolising mood within the party. They protested against Sarkozy's plans to hold a party conference on 14 January to elect a presidential candidate. This was, they said, disrespectful to President Chirac, who had made it clear that he would not decide whether or not he would run until later in the year. The plans were nonetheless confirmed this week.

In September, Sarkozy, convinced that Chirac could no longer harm him, added deep insult to injury. He went to the United States, met George Bush and poured scorn on Chirac's proudest (and some say only) achievement in his second term: his resistance to the American-British invasion of Iraq in 2003. In a speech in New York, Sarkozy said that, when he was President, he would ban "arrogance" and "grandiloquence" as diplomatic tools. He would not allow disagreements with allies to "become a crisis". He would not try deliberately to embarrass France's friends.

Since then, it has been clear that there could be no paternal reconciliation on the centre-right: only a struggle to the death. Chirac and Villepin will refuse to join the UMP primary race, which officially started this week. Instead, one or other of them - conceivably now President Chirac himself - is expected to mount an independent campaign in the spring, offering an alternative to "Sarko" and "Ségo". Of course, such a strategy risks splitting the centre-right and handing victory to Royal. It runs the risk of letting the veteran far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen into the two-candidate, second round of the election, ahead of Sarkozy or any other candidate of the mainstream right.

If Chirac is unable to continue in office himself, he would cheerfully welcome a president Royal. Apart from anything else, he has a nagging fear of prosecution for his alleged financial irregularities in the 1990s once he loses presidential immunity.

Chirac suspects that Sarkozy might encourage such an investigation, as final act of patricide. As president, Royal would have other things to worry about.

Realistically or not - almost certainly not - Chirac and his advisers have convinced themselves that the President may yet be able to grasp a third term. They are convinced that Sarkozy is emotionally fragile; that they can chivvy him into some kind of dreadful error. A nervy "Sarko" performance on the TV news this week did nothing to discourage them.

If the younger man's poll ratings start to drop dramatically, if Royal seems certain to win, they believe that the President's chance will come. Centre-right voters, France as a whole, will yet turn desperately to the grandpère to sort out the mess that the old man has largely created. In any case, defeating the son, not the mother, is what matters most.

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