French right in turmoil as Chirac threatens to challenge Sarkozy

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President Jacques Chirac said yesterday that he would "think about" running for a third term - three days before his party is due to install his former protégé as its official candidate.

Challenged directly to reveal his electoral plans at a new year reception for the press, M. Chirac said: "That merits some thought. Therefore, I will think about it". Many people on the French centre-right would say that M. Chirac, 74, has hardly thought of anything else for weeks.

With 99 days to go before France votes in the first round of the presidential elections, the ruling party is in a state of acrimonious turmoil, unprecedented even for the French centre-right. On Sunday, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), founded by M. Chirac five years ago, will hold a glitzy and expensive conference to enthrone the Interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, as its candidate in the two-round election on 22 April and 6 May.

Almost the entire UMP is united behind M. Sarkozy, 51, who is expected to win a crushing majority of the 300,000 party members. The exceptions, however, will include four of the most senior figures of the party: President Chirac; the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin; the Defence Minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, and the president of the National Assembly, Jean-Louis Debre.

M. Chirac has said that he will not attend or even send a message to the conference. M. de Villepin has said that he might attend - so long as he is not insulted - but that he will not vote for M. Sarkozy, who is the only official candidate.

Mme Alliot-Marie and M. Debre have also said that they will abstain rather than vote for M. Sarkozy.

The conference is an important rite of passage in M. Sarkozy's three-year push for the presidency. M. Debre, a Chirac loyalist, described it as a "non-event".

On Tuesday, UMP parliamentarians hurled insults and recriminations at the Prime Minister, M. de Villepin - nominally their prime minister - after he refused to back M. Sarkozy. They said that UMP voters around the country were "confused and furious".

Everyone should now be united, they said, to defeat the Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal, and the veteran far-right leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

M. de Villepin is a senior bureaucrat and long-time Chirac aide who was appointed Prime Minister last year without ever standing in an election.

He tried to lecture the deputies on his "Napoleonic" strategy for winning the election through the "dynamism" of "diversity". "Go and get yourself elected!" the UMP deputies screamed back at him.

Civil wars within the French centre-right - popularly described as the "stupidest right in the world" - have been endemic since the retirement of Charles de Gaulle in 1969. Rarely has the division, even hatred, been so public.

In a recent poll, more than 80 per cent of French people, and 60 per cent of UMP voters, said M. Chirac should not run again. Two of his former prime ministers, Alain Juppé and Jean-Pierre Raffarin, have declared support for M. Sarkozy as the person "best-placed" to defeat Mme Royal.

And yet, the President refuses to say he will not run. As sitting president, he could declare an independent campaign, splitting the centre-right vote. He has used the ritual round of new year presidential declarations to outline what amounts to a campaign manifesto to rescue France from globalism, "extremism", socialism - and the "rupture" with Chiraquism promised by M. Sarkozy.

At yesterday's new year reception for the press, M. Chirac came close to admitting that he was seriously considering his fifth campaign. Either way, he said, his decision would be based on "the national interest" and his "passion for France".

In public, M. Sarkozy and his closest advisers are treating the undignified end of the Chirac era as something of a joke. M. Sarkozy has even suggested that the President is, unknowingly, doing him a favour. By refusing to accept that the leadership of the centre-right is passing to the younger man, M. Chirac is boosting M. Sarkozy's credentials, they say. He is helping to define M. Sarkozy as a different kind of politician.

And anyway, M. Sarkozy is said to be convinced that M. Chirac will not run again. However, other figures on the centre-right suggest that, if M. Sarkozy's poll ratings dip, M. Chirac may yet seize on the opportunity to enter the race in late February or March.