Second female candidate to stand for French presidency

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Within the next few days, France will have two female presidential candidates from leading political parties.

The defence minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, 60, has let it be known that she intends to challenge the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, for the right to represent the centre-right governing party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), in spring's presidential election.

Unlike the already-anointed Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal, 53, Mme Alliot-Marie has little realistic chance of becoming France's first female president. Her decision to run in a brief UMP "primary" this month is significant all the same.

Mme Alliot-Marie, often known as "MAM", will provide a heavyweight opponent for M. Sarkozy and allow him to stage a half-way plausible primary campaign. There will be three regional party conferences this month and, maybe, one nationally televised debate.

M. Sarkozy, 51, who is the UMP president, is certain to win the internal party vote on 14 January. Mme Alliot-Marie's decision to offer herself as a sacrificial candidate suggests that she has aligned herself with M. Sarkozy in the vicious undeclared battle which rages in the ruling party between the ambitious Interior Minister and his former mentor, President Jacques Chirac.

By joining the UMP primary on rules established by the Interior Minister - and scorned by M. Chirac and his Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin - "MAM" is also positioning herself to become a senior government figure if M. Sarkozy goes on to win the presidential election proper on 22 April and 6 May.

Mme Alliot-Marie, an effective, independent-minded, popular but dull defence minister, has previously been seen as closer to President Chirac than M. Sarkozy. She used to be president of M. Chirac's now defunct neo-Gaullist party, dissolved - to her annoyance - in 2002 to create a wider party of the centre-right as a campaign vehicle for the President. This larger party, the UMP, has since been hijacked - to M. Chirac's fury - by M. Sarkozy.

In the "primary" campaign this month, Mme Alliot-Marie is likely to present herself as a traditional Gaullist, rejecting socialism but defending the importance of the state and the French social model. M. Sarkozy formally declared that he was running for the presidency on Thursday. He has been a de facto candidate for more than two years, campaigning - from within the government - against 30 years of "failed" centrist governments of both left and centre-right.

He has called for "rupture" with the French model of regulation, state interference and high public spending, and has praised the free-market "Anglo-Saxon" approach. However, he has moderated his language. Alarmed by the rise of Mme Royal and her socially conservative centrism, M. Sarkozy now promises a "rupture tranquille" - a peaceful rupture - with France's past.

M. Chirac, 74, and M. Villepin, 53, are said to be weighing their chances of making a late, non-party entrance to the presidential race next year as anyone-but-Sego-or-Sarko candidates. This could split the centre-right vote and hand the presidency to Mme Royal.