Sarkozy makes early play for presidency

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The French Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, will today take an important stride towards installing himself as the main centre-right contender for the presidential elections in 18 months' time.

To the fury of President Jacques Chirac and the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, M. Sarkozy will press for a change in the ruling centre-right party, the Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP), which will create a democratic "primary" to choose a presidential candidate in 2007.

The party's political bureau, meeting tonight, is expected to start the process for a special conference of the UMP which will consider, and probably approve, the change early next year.

This apparently technical decision by an obscure political committee may go a long way towards deciding the identity of the next President and the shape of French politics in the post-Chirac era. M. Sarkozy became president of the UMP 12 months ago and has since rebuilt the party - originally created by and for M. Chirac - as a vehicle for his own political ambitions. A primary among the 200,000 members to select an official presidential candidate would create an easy victory for the Interior Minister.

This would give M. Sarkozy the support and finances of the country's dominant centre-right party. His rival, M. de Villepin, who has undeclared presidential ambitions, could still run as an independent candidate in the first round of the national elections in May 2007. But he would do so with no party machine and no easy access to campaign funds.

The chances of 73-year-old President Chirac running for a third term have virtually disappeared, buried by his May defeat in the EU constitution referendum and his later health problems. However, the President is said to be determined to block the rise of M. Sarkozy, who has brutally criticised M. Chirac's policy and legacy. M. de Villepin and other Chirac loyalists have tried to rubbish the idea of a democratic primary vote.

The Prime Minister, who has never stood for an election of any kind, suggested that party primaries were somehow "un-French".

He said the notion that a political party should decide a candidate for the presidential election ran against the anti-party principles of late president Charles de Gaulle. A presidential election - according to Gaullist theology - should be an "encounter between a man and a people".

Sarkozy supporters mock this language as hypocritical and archaic. They say President Chirac and his supporters are determined to hold on to the top-down, "boss principal". They say M. Chirac believes he, not the party members, should decide his successor.

M. Sarkozy said on television on Sunday night that a democratic choice of all party members was the only "respectable" way to choose a candidate. "It is time we abandoned the idea that we are looking for some kind of supreme and infallible guide," he said.

M. Sarkozy knows, however, that he has forced M. Chirac and M. de Villepin into a corner. Recent opinion polls suggest that a second-round presidential run-off between M. Sarkozy and the Prime Minister would be won by M. de Villepin. His statist approach and defence of the existing French social model is more attractive to left-wing voters than M. Sarkozy's talk of "rupture" with the past.

But M. de Villepin might never reach the second round. If he had to first compete with M. Sarkozy as the "official" centre-right candidate, polls suggest he would be soundly defeated.