Sarkozy ridicules Chirac's 'pointless' Bastille Day speech

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In private comments leaked to the press, M Sarkozy ridiculed in advance President Chirac's traditional Bastille Day "state of the nation" television appearance this morning. There was "no real point" this year in the President's tame 14 July interview with leading television news anchors, M Sarkozy told a meeting of ministers.

The President should only speak "when he has something to say ... why persist with this tradition when there is nothing new and the French are already thinking about their holidays?"

President Chirac is expected to try to use today's appearance to rebuild public respect for his presidency, sunk to an all-time low by the "no" vote in the EU referendum in April. Among other things, M. Chirac is expected to promise that he will defend the rights of French workers and the French "social" model - a model which has also been openly mocked by M Sarkozy in recent days.

The Prime Minister, and Chirac loyalist, Dominique de Villepin, reportedly told the ministerial breakfast meeting that the President would have "important" comments to make on "all subjects". According to accounts given by other ministers present, an "agitated" M. Sarkozy retorted: "Perhaps he imagines that he is the only person with a right to speak."

M. Sarkozy, 50, has made it clear that he, not M. Chirac, 72, should be the standard-bearer of the centre-right in the presidential election in 2007. Since returning to the government after M. Chirac's humiliation by the popular rejection of the EU constitution, the ambitious interior minister has defied Chirac doctrine, or government policy, on several occasions.

He has also been accused of whipping up populist feeling by calling for the "punishment" of judges who make errors, and by calling for the "cleaning up with a high-powered hose" of a crime-ridden public housing estate near Paris.

M. Sarkozy's bravado - extreme even for him - has encouraged speculation that he might have been unsettled by troubles in his marriage. His friends say that he is deliberately adopting a high-profile - but also high-risk - policy of being in government and opposition at the same time. He is determined that his own popularity should not be damaged by association with M. Chirac, or M. de Villepin.

How long President Chirac will be able to tolerate such open disloyalty, even mockery, is unclear.

The Defence Minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, gave a public warning yesterday that the patience of M. Sarkozy's ministerial colleagues may be wearing thin. "Those who were bowing and scraping to the President of the Republic a few weeks ago should tell themselves there is no point trying to weaken him with criticisms of this kind," she said.

In a speech last weekend, M Sarkozy said it was time for France to engage in a "critical self-examination". He also suggested the country needed its politicians to show the same courage as "Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair in Britain" and make unpopular decisions for the good of the nation.

France's high-tax, large state, high job security "social model" - defended by M. Chirac from implied criticism by Mr Blair - has proved a failure in the past 20 years, M. Sarkozy said.

The Interior Minister - who likes to criss-cross between traditional "right-wing" and "left-wing" issues - has also called again for a policy of positive discrimination towards ethnic minorities, an idea rejected by M. Chirac and M. de Villepin.