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

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.

Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
world cup 2014
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice