Rivals in open warfare after Chirac's stroke raises stakes in succession fight battle

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The possibility, however remote, of an early presidential election has transformed the calculations of the two colleagues and bitter rivals who believe they are destined to lead France in the post-Chirac era.

The Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, and the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, have cast off all pretence and started their presidential campaigns in the past couple of days.

M. Chirac's extended stay in the Val-de-Grâce military hospital in Paris has also launched a war of words over the limited information released on the President's condition.

Two previous presidents, Georges Pompidou and François Mitterrand, concealed life-threatening illnesses. Left-wing and centrist politicians called yesterday for a full medical bulletin on M. Chirac in the name of "transparency".

Officially, M. Chirac, 72, has suffered a "petit accident vasculaire" - a small, cerebral vascular accident, or mini-stroke, which has temporarily damaged his vision. The hospital and his office insist the condition is not serious. Even if the President's illness is as temporary as the Elysée Palace claims, M. Chirac is now effectively locked out of all possibility of running for a third term in spring 2007.

With the Left still scattered by the "non" vote in the EU referendum, the battle for the presidential succession - whether in 2006 or 2007 - has erupted prematurely between the two most senior figures in M. Chirac's government.

M. de Villepin - never elected to any political office - openly laid claim at the weekend to M. Chirac's political legacy. He rejected suggestions that France was in decline and promised that the country could be prosperous and great again.

A few hours later, M. Sarkozy, president of the centre-right party, the UMP, spoke to the same summer university for young party members.

He called for a "rupture" with the consensus left-right policies of "the past 30 years". (M. Chirac first became prime minister in 1974.) M. Sarkozy, 50, attacked the obsession of right and left with the high-spending, big government "social model" that has "created so many unemployed, so many poor people and so many marginals".

M. Chirac's illness is bad news for M. Sarkozy. Three months ago, he was the "next big thing" in French politics. His position has been undermined by the apparent break-up of his marriage and the sure-footed, public relations performance of M. de Villepin since he became Prime Minister in early June.

An early presidential election would favour M. de Villepin. Although no prime minister has ever gone straight into the presidency, the 50-year-old former foreign minister has not had time to become detested. Several months of half-rule by M. Chirac would place M. de Villepin in a quasi-presidential role. He will take M. Chirac's place at the cabinet meeting tomorrow.

It might seem that M. Sarkozy's promise of radical reform - lower charges on business, a top income tax rate of 50 per cent, reducing over-manning in the public sector - would appeal to an electorate that constantly says it wants change. In truth, a large section of the middle class is allergic to anything which might threaten its privileges and the status quo.

The de Villepin message is therefore an alluring and subtle one - although alarming for all those who believe that France needs a new beginning. Despite the poverty of M. Chirac's legacy, the Prime Minister is, in effect, promising to be a Chirac II. He is saying: "I can make this country great again without changing anything much."

The presidential hopefuls

NICOLAS SARKOZY Nicolas Sarkozy de Nagy-Bocsa, born in Paris in January 1955, is the son of an exiled Hungarian aristocrat and a French lawyer. He was elected mayor of Neuilly, a suburb of Paris, at 28 and has been treasury minister and finance minister. He is now interior minister and president of the centre-right party created by and for M. Chirac.

DOMINIQUE DE VILLEPIN M. de Villepin, born in Rabat, Morocco, in November 1953, is a career diplomat and product of elite French finishing schools. He became M. Chirac's chef de cabinet in 1995 but has never been elected. As foreign minister from 2002 he was spokesman for France's refusal to support the invasion of Iraq.