Sarkozy's colleagues plot his downfall

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The Independent Online

A scarcely disguised civil war has broken out within France's governing party as forces loyal to President Jacques Chirac make an attempt to drag down Nicolas Sarkozy, the centre-right front-runner for next year's presidential election.

Two senior figures - the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, and the Defence Minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie - have hinted that they might stand against M. Sarkozy next year even if he is formally chosen as their party's candidate in January.

In the past few days, there has been a whispering campaign within the centre-right Union Pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) suggesting that M. Sarkozy, the Interior Minister, is out of control and even dangerous.

One minister said privately that, if faced with a second-round run-off next spring between M. Sarkozy and Ségolenè Royal, the Socialist front-runner, he would "vote Royal, without hesitation". Another minister, also speaking privately, said: "Everything should be done to help Sarkozy trip over the carpet, as an act of public safety."

M. Sarkozy, 51, the opinion poll favourite to win the presidency next spring, cancelled all public engagements yesterday. His officials said that he was suffering from a "severe migraine". One of the meetings that he skipped was the weekly breakfast for leaders of the ruling party, hosted by M. de Villepin at the Matignon Palace, the Prime Minister's official residence. The mood at the previous "government breakfast" was so frosty that it broke up after less than 30 minutes.

The sudden flurry of private and public attacks on M. Sarkozy from within his own camp bears all the signs of being co-ordinated and led from the top. President Chirac's loathing of M. Sarkozy, a former protégé, is well known, although relations between the two men seemed to have been patched up in the summer.

In recent weeks, however, M. Sarkozy has infuriated the President by criticising foreign policy during a visit to the US and calling once again for "rupture" with the drift and "decline" of the past two decades.

In other words, M. Sarkozy has made it clear that he plans to run against centrist government policy and against the vacuous, domestic record of 11 years of the Chirac presidency.

Some form of retaliation by the forces of "Chiraquie" has long been predicted. A vicious and destructive civil war for control of the centre-right - far from the first in recent French history - appears to be underway.

M. Chirac, 74 next month, has not yet formally abandoned hope of running for a third term. Realistically, M. Sarkozy's popularity and a catalogue of government disasters have ruled out any possibility of M. Chirac or M. de Villepin capturing the "nomination" of the UMP next January. M. Sarkozy, the party's president, has promised a more liberal economic policy, a tougher line on immigration and a "rupture" with the "social model" of high taxes and generous (for some) public investment and welfare spending. President Chirac attacked "professional pessimists" who criticised a social model which was "part of our identity".

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