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Rise of Sarkozy Junior whips up nepotism storm for 'Papa'

Thousands sign petition against Jean Sarkozy's promotion as both opposition and President's allies cry foul

The possible – or even probable – appointment of a 23-year-old Paris law student to run Europe's largest office development has generated a storm of protest and mockery in France, including an 8,000-name petition on the internet. According to his critics, the student has only one qualification to become the next political boss of the lucrative, prestigious but floundering La Défense business district west of the city centre. The student's name is Jean Sarkozy, the son of the President of the Republic.

According to the President's political party, Jean Sarkozy, who is in his second year of a law degree at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, is "the most legitimate" candidate for the job. A taller, blonder, more handsome version of his father, he said modestly: "I am not more legitimate than other candidates but nor am I less legitimate."

Mr Sarkozy Jnr already leads his father's centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), on the council of Hauts-de-Seine, the wealthiest département in France. He is, in theory, a shoo-in for the party's nomination to be the new head of La Défense's public management body later this month, and for the final appointment in December.

But the prospect of a 23-year-old being catapulted into such a powerful, if unpaid, position has raised howls of fury and derision. The former presidential candidate, François Bayrou, accused the "Sarkozy clan" of taking France "back to the days of imperial Rome", when the Emperor Caligula appointed his horse as consul. Other critics have spoken of the "Berlusconisation" of France or of political behaviour worthy of a "banana republic".

The criticism comes not only from the President's usual opponents on the left and centre. The online forums of Le Figaro – a centre-right newspaper which supports President Sarkozy – were packed yesterday with angry messages condemning the latest move in the fast-track career of "Sarkozy fils". One typical message reads: "My grandson is in the second year of kindergarten and loves aeroplanes. Do you think he has a chance of becoming boss of Air France next year?"

Jean Sarkozy shot to prominence soon after his father's election in 2007. He supported a renegade candidate for the President's original fiefdom as mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, a wealthy western surburb of Paris. Last year, soon after marrying an heiress, he ran successfully for a county council seat and was elected as leader of the UMP group on the Hauts-de-Seine council.

Observers of the tangled and poisonous web of Hauts-de-Seine politics say it is too simple to suggest that President Sarkozy has pushed his son forward. They say the President, who himself became mayor of Neuilly at the age of 28, has been both fascinated and exasperated by the depth of his son's hunger and ambition (although he has done little to curb them).

Officially, the UMP endorses Jean Sarkozy's candidature but the controversy has added to growing disquiet in the party as the President approaches the half-way point in his five-year term. "Most 23-year-old students in France are still struggling to complete their courses or find unpaid work experience jobs," said one UMP deputy yesterday. "You can imagine how this goes down with middle-class parents worried about their children's futures in a time of recession. Nicolas Sarkozy should remember that he was elected on a promise of bringing equal opportunities to all."

The defeated Socialist presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, hinted at wider political motives. In a radio interview yesterday, she suggested that the real issue was the €1bn a year in rents and taxes generated by La Défense for the mostly centre-right dominated town and county councils just to the west of Paris proper. There are also multibillion-euro plans – launched by President Sarkozy when he became the county and La Défense boss in 2004 – to extend the site and build two or three giant skyscrapers taller than the Eiffel Tower.

"Money like that is always useful just before the next presidential election [in 2012]," Ms Royal said. "Holding the keys to the generation of billions of euros ... you know what I mean."

Other critics are more concerned about Mr Sarkozy Jnr's ability to handle the problems experienced by La Défense in the recession, including a projected €150bn shortfall in its funds this year. The public accounts of Europe's largest purpose-built business district, which opened in the 1970s and can accommodate about 150,000 workers, have persistently been criticised by official financial watchdogs as too opaque or vague.

An internet petition has been launched by Christophe Grébe, an investigative journalist turned centrist politician, who has acquired a large following with his criticism of the political and financial management of La Défense in recent years.

More than 8,000 people had signed the petition last night. It reads: "Presiding over such an organisation requires competence and experience. Jean Sarkozy, we invite you to complete your law studies and do a few work experience placements in business, before – who knows? – trying again for your father's old job one day."

Nicolas and sons: The President's men

*Jean Sarkozy de Nagy-Bocsa, who turned 23 last month, is the younger of two sons of Nicolas Sarkozy's first marriage. When Mr Sarkozy left the marriage to live with his future second wife, Cécilia, Jean was two years old and was largely brought up by his mother, Marie-Dominique Culioli. The president is said by friends to be exasperated by his son's youthful ambition but unwilling to stand in his way, partly because of a sense of guilt at the collapse of his first marriage.

*Jean's quieter, older brother, Pierre, 24, is an independent rock and hip-hop music producer.

*President Sarkozy has a third son, Louis, 12, who lives in New York with his mother Cécilia Ciganer-Albeniz, the president's divorced second wife.

*Sarkozy's third wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, has an eight-year-old son, Aurélien. His father is the French writer, Raphael Enthoven. Aurélien lives with his mother and her new husband in the 16th arrondissement of Paris.