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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future