Presidential rival takes control of Chirac's party

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The Independent Online

A new era in French politics dawned yesterday amid American glitz and ballyhoo with the enthronement of Nicolas Sarkozy as the president of France's main centre-right party, the UMP.

By winning with a Soviet-style 81.5 per cent of the vote the leadership of a party created by and for President Jacques Chirac, M. Sarkozy, 49, completed the first stage of his rapid ascension to the front rank of French politics.

The scale of the victory, and the not entirely choreographed pro-"Sarko" hysteria at the party conference in Le Bourget, north of Paris yesterday, suggest M. Chirac's days of dominating the French centre-right are over. Although President Chirac sent warm congratulations, and Mme Chirac received a public kiss from M. Sarkozy, the men, once close allies, are now in fervent, undeclared combat for the right of centre "nomination" for the next presidential elections in 2007. President Chirac, 72 today, says he "has not yet decided" whether to run for a third term. M. Sarkozy says he will "not necessarily" be a candidate in 2007.

No one in French politics doubts that battle has been joined, and M. Sarkozy has youth and momentum, and a shapeless desire for "change" on his side. The riposte of the Chirac camp is likely to be based on insinuations that M. Sarkozy, the son of an exiled Hungarian aristocrat, is somehow unFrench and too American.

There was already whispering about the cost and glitziness of the party conference, which had jarring music, forests of posters, and video-clips of Sarko-supporters, ranging from movie actors such as Christian "Asterix" Clavier to the former Spanish prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar. "As president of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, I intend to remain a free man," M. Sarkozy said in his acceptance speech. "Free to think, free to propose, free to imagine, free to debate."

He said he wanted, above all, to "unite" the incurably quarrelsome French centre-right and that he would support the government of the unpopular, centre-right Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin and therefore, implicitly, President Chirac.

But M. Sarkozy knows his popularity is rooted in the perception of a new kind of French politician, a man who is hugely ambitious but not driven entirely by personal ambition and a man who will be willing to challenge the entrenched interests of both right and left.

"People often complain about, or mock, the supposed resistance of France to change," he said. "This is an unjustified criticism. The status quo will not be the watchword of the UMP. It will be our enemy." At President Chirac's insistence, M. Sarkozy will resign today as Finance Minister in the Raffarin government. M. Chirac ruled that a senior ministerial position was incompatible with leadership of a large, political party. The President evidently feared that possession of both jobs would give M. Sarkozy an unshakeable power base as the 2007 election approaches.

After two whirlwind stints in large ministries in the past two years - at Interior, then Finance - M. Sarkozy has built a reputation as a pragmatic man of action. Although sometimes accused of playing to the gallery, he is also prepared to espouse causes unpopular with right and left.

He has called recently for a weakening of France's strict tradition of a "secular" state. Government should intervene, he says, to build mosques and take "French Islam" out of the hands of the radicals.