The mould of French politics has been broken

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The Independent Online

French politics is in ferment. The election of Nicolas Sarkozy as the president of the Gaullist UMP party by an emphatic majority has re-energised the country's centre-right. The charismatic former finance minister has pulled off a coup against his party's established order and, in particular, its founder, Jacques Chirac. Many believe M. Sarkozy will do battle with M. Chirac, his old patron, for the UMP nomination in the 2007 presidential elections. The adulation with which M. Sarkozy's election was received by the UMP faithful at their party conference in Le Bourget suggests that the long Chirac era is finally drawing to a close. In M. Sarkozy, the centre-right feels it has a leader who can reinforce its hold on power.

French politics is in ferment. The election of Nicolas Sarkozy as the president of the Gaullist UMP party by an emphatic majority has re-energised the country's centre-right. The charismatic former finance minister has pulled off a coup against his party's established order and, in particular, its founder, Jacques Chirac. Many believe M. Sarkozy will do battle with M. Chirac, his old patron, for the UMP nomination in the 2007 presidential elections. The adulation with which M. Sarkozy's election was received by the UMP faithful at their party conference in Le Bourget suggests that the long Chirac era is finally drawing to a close. In M. Sarkozy, the centre-right feels it has a leader who can reinforce its hold on power.

As the Gaullists rediscover a sense of unity, the opposition Socialist Party looks to be falling apart. Tomorrow, it will hold an internal referendum to decide whether to support the EU constitution or not in the national vote scheduled for next year. Incredibly, the party of François Mitterrand is threatening to say non. This would almost certainly mean that France itself would reject the constitution, plunging the entire EU into crisis.

But the significance that the Socialist referendum has taken on is deceptive. While this is a hugely important moment for the EU, the Socialists are weak at home and badly split over Europe. The rejectionist faction argues that the constitution is not socialist enough and that it will enshrine an alien "Anglo-Saxon" conception of the European Union. This echoes the intense hostility many on the left feel towards the economic reforms that the French government is trying to implement at home. Unfortunately, the rejectionists do not have any coherent solutions to France's economic ailments. Nor are the Socialist Party's squabbles likely to make it any more electable.

The mould of French politics has been broken. If Socialists vote against the constitution, the French left's reputation for being the driving force of the European Union must be re-evaluated. The emergence of the untypical figure of M. Sarkozy as the darling of the centre-right is another sign that the political landscape has altered. For France, these are indeed interesting times.

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