Sarkozy installed as presidential candidate despite Chirac's snub

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Nicolas Sarkozy was enthroned as the presidential candidate of France's ruling party yesterday and immediately presented himself as the true successor to Charles de Gaulle.

In a pugnacious and eloquent 90-minute speech, M. Sarkozy reached out to both Left and Right and promised to sweep away the the "immobilism" and "cowardice" of the recent past.

He placed himself in the line of descent from national heroes of the French centre-right, starting with De Gaulle, but allowed little space in the pantheon for his former mentor, the sitting President, Jacques Chirac. "I am not a conservative," he said. "I don't want an immobile France. I am an innovator."

M. Sarkozy, the only contender, was overwhelmingly chosen as the official candidate of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP). The Interior Minister, who will be 52 this month, took 98.1 per cent of the votes cast and won the support of 69 per cent of the party membership.

Most senior figures of the party were in the crowd of about 80,000, bussed in from all over France, to acclaim M. Sarkozy at a choreographed and costly party conference in an exhibition centre on the edge of Paris.

The principle absentee was M. Chirac, the party's founder. The Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, made a 30-minute appearance and departed before M. Sarkozy spoke.

In the days running up to the party congress, both President and Prime Minister have refused to endorse M. Sarkozy. The Interior Minister is regarded by the Chiraquian faithful as an upstart and a man too excitable and too divisive to govern France.

M. Chirac, 74, said on Thursday that he was still "thinking about" launching an independent campaign for a third term in the Elysée Palace.

The latest polls place M. Sarkozy neck-and-neck with the Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal, to win the presidency over two rounds on 22 April and 6 May.

In his powerful acceptance speech, M. Sarkozy presented himself as a patriot and a pragmatist. He said that he wanted to place "respect for work", and the riches produced by work, at the centre of French life. He would establish a ceiling on taxation, so that no individual would have to hand over more than half of his or her income.

He would limit the right to strike and guarantee of a "minimum" service from state-owned industries, such as the railways. Any attempt to oppose such reforms by protest on the streets would, he implied, be met with firmness and not the "chronic lack of courage" of recent years.

In an attempt to appear more consensual, he also dwelled on women's rights, the frustrations of the young and the cultural "wealth" of France's ethnic diversity.

M. Chirac's contribution to French history was mentioned only twice: once as the man who gave M. Sarkozy his chance in politics at the age of 19; and secondly as the man who had made the right choice by opposing the Iraq war.