Ségolène win fires up 'grandfather' Chirac

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President Jacques Chirac has convinced himself that he is the only politician on the French right who can defeat the Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal, in next year's presidential election.

Although he has not yet decided whether to run for a third term,M. Chirac, who is 74 next week, believes that only a "grandfather figure" can take on and deflate the pretensions of the "mother figure", Mme Royal.

A senior source on the French centre-right, close to M. Chirac, has told The Independent that Mme Royal's crushing victory in the Socialist "primary" last week has rejuvenated his appetite for political combat.

M. Chirac will therefore intensify his efforts in the next few weeks to trip up his Interior Minister and former protégé, Nicolas Sarkozy, the man who has long appeared certain to succeed him as leader of the French centre-right and candidate for the governing party in next spring's elections.

A semi-public civil war has been raging for months between M. Sarkozy, on the one hand, and M. Chirac and his Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, on the other. A public show of amity over breakfast between M. Sarkozy and M. de Villepin yesterday convinced no one.

Many politicians on the centre-right have been predicting for weeks that M. Chirac had not yet said his "final word" and would make some attempt to block, or hobble, the Interior Minister's push for the presidency. A "wrecking" independent campaign by M. de Villepin next spring seemed a likely option.

Now, according to the senior source, M. Chirac has persuaded himself that M. Sarkozy's appeal will collapse in the face of Mme Royal's elegance, charisma, social conservatism and vague but unthreatening brand of socialism. The President believes that he may therefore have a chance to parachute into the race next year as the only person capable of saving the French right from five years of "Ségolènisme".

Other politicians on the centre-right - now mostly loyal to M. Sarkozy - say that this a fantasy, encouraged by officials in the Elysée Palace who are "in denial" and dread the end of the Chirac era next spring. The pro-Sarkozy politicians point to the President's great age, his empty record and his unpopularity, even with his own former supporters.

In an opinion poll this week, only 1 per cent of likely voters for M. Chirac's governing party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), said they thought the President should stand again. M. Sarkozy scored 67 per cent.

Nevertheless, M. Chirac has convinced himself that Mme Royal's emergence will overturn the board game. At the very least, it gives him a plausible reason to undermine his detested former protégé. M. Chirac will keep his options open as long as possible, fostering uncertainty on the centre-right in the hope of diminishing M. Sarkozy's chances.

"He believes that the opinion polls in coming days will show a big surge for Ségolène, the senior source said. "Many voters on the centre-right already have doubts about Sarkozy. Chirac believes that those doubts can be encouraged to grow rapidly.

"He believes that it will be impossible for Sarkozy, or any other male politician of her own generation, to attack Ségolène's offer to be the 'mother' of France. Only a 'grandfather' can point to the mother's weaknesses - in other words himself."

Under rules for a UMP party "primary" agreed on Wednesday night, M. Sarkozy looks certain to be selected as candidate by a party conference on 14 January. He is likely to announce his candidature officially this week.

The Defence Minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, now looks likely to run against M. Sarkozy in the official "primary". In return for being ceremonially defeated in January, giving M. Sarkozy added legitimacy, she will expect a big job in a centre-right government.

One or other of M. Chirac and M. de Villepin is expected to mount an independent campaign in the early spring.