Leading article: Hopes and fears about M. Sarkozy

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The Independent Online

Nicolas Sarkozy has achieved the first stage of his ambition to be France's next President by winning the nomination of his party, the centre-right UMP. In theory, this pits him against the Socialist Party's candidate, Ségolène Royal, in a centre-left versus centre-right duel for the Elysée. The coming election campaign, however, will probably not be as straightforward in practice as it looks just now on paper.

The first complication for M. Sarkozy is his disappointing endorsement. In yesterday's election, he won barely 70 per cent of party members' votes, despite his being the only name on the ballot. He already knew he had the backing of neither President Chirac, nor his protégé, Dominique de Villepin. What he has now learnt is that almost one third of his party is not enthusiastic about his candidature either.

This could open the way for someone else to step forward from the reaches of more traditional Gaullism. M. Chirac has still not completely ruled himself out, despite his age; others could now be emboldened to enter the contest as independents. A split of the centre-right vote would give Mme Royal an even better chance of becoming France's first Presidente. It would also, however, give French voters an escape-route back into conservatism.

For the most welcome aspect of a contest between M. Sarkozy and Mme Royal is that both have, in quite similar ways, broken out of hidebound party politics and generated excitement in their own right. Both are astute tacticians and unapologetically ambitious. Both are fighters, having won their nominations against powerful vested interests. And either - in policies and their style - would contribute to the modernisation of French politics, and so of France.

By alienating sections of their natural constituencies, however, and tacking towards the centre, both Mme Royale and M. Sarkozy are taking risks. For Mme Royale the threat comes less from the far left than from apathy among the Socialist rank and file. For M. Sarkozy, however, a time may come when he needs to protect his back against the National Front. Would he then be tempted to play the race card, despite his promises about inclusion?

A separate doubt relates to the idea that a modernising French president would necessarily strengthen the hand of those countries, such as Britain, that advocate a more loosely bound European Union. The French consensus about the EU, even after the rejection of the constitution, favours a strong and cohesive Europe. Neither a Presidente Royale nor a President Sarkozy is guaranteed to make life in the EU any more comfortable for a comparatively Eurosceptic British Prime Minister. In our view, that might be no bad thing.