The French Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, has launched a campaign for the presidency in all but name, demanding radical changes in France's aloof style of government.
His new year speech to the press yesterday amounted to a direct assault on the record and "feel-good" rhetoric of his nominal bosses, President Jacques Chirac and the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin.
He said that in future a president should be directly responsible for implementing his or her promises to the French people. He should be allowed only two terms in office because the present open-ended system encouraged presidents to "endure and do nothing".
Without mentioning him by name, M. Sarkozy also mocked a call by M. de Villepin the previous day for France to be happy and confident and not dwell on its economic or social problems. Such attempts to "jump-start" French "greatness" were inappropriate from a "powerless state... stuck in its own debt," M. Sarkozy said.
Although the presidential election is not due until May 2007, this amounted to an early declaration of political war by M. Sarkozy on his own side. France now faces the bizarre prospect of a year of merciless electoral combat between the three most important figures in its centre-right government.
M. Sarkozy, 51 this month, appeared to have gained new energy and confidence from the ending of his much-publicised rift with his wife, and former chief of staff, Cecilia. The pugnacious Interior Minister refused to comment on their reconciliation yesterday but suggested that he would no longer mingle his public and his private lives.
In his new year speech and question-and-answer session, attended by 500 French and foreign journalists, M. Sarkozy went far beyond his briefs as Interior Minister and leader of the ruling UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) party. He called for the biggest shake-up in the structure of French government in almost 50 years. If he was elected President, he implied, he would turn the presidency into, in effect, a "super" prime ministership, directly accountable to parliament and responsible for the day-to-day running of the government.
At present, the President never appears in parliament and stands apart from the details of domestic policy, which are left to his nominee, the Prime Minister. M. Sarkozy suggested that the Prime Minister should in future become a kind of "super" chief of staff, responsible for "co-ordinating" government policies, not "directing" them. Both these changes would require an amendment to the present constitution of the Fifth Republic, drafted in 1958. "Power should be in the hands of someone who was elected, not someone who was nominated," M. Sarkozy said.
This was another direct dig at M. de Villepin, who is widely thought to be planning a presidential challenge himself next year. The Prime Minister has never stood for any electoral office and had risen to the premiership on the coat-tails of M. Chirac - first as his chief of staff, then as foreign and interior minister, then as prime minister.
Just in case anyone had missed the point, M. Sarkozy added that he "owed nothing to anyone... I climbed the step by my own efforts, by my own efforts".
M. Sarkozy was elected mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, a rich Paris suburb, aged 29. Unlike most French politicians, he has not been through the system of "grandes écoles" which trains the French elite. He omitted to mention, however, that he was for many years a favourite political son of Jacques Chirac.
As President, M. Sarkozy implied, he would try to revive the first part of the proposed EU treaty, which set out to streamline European decision-making. This could be put to the French, and other national parliaments, without a new referendum, M. Sarkozy suggested. In the meantime, there should be a freeze on enlargement of the EU.Reuse content