Chirac and Sarkozy head for High Noon showdown

15th July 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, July 15 (AFP) - The high-stakes contest between the two men who dominate French politics has flared into the open again after President Jacques Chirac delivered a public warning to his powerful Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy to rein in his ambitions.

PARIS, July 15 (AFP) - The high-stakes contest between the two men who dominate French politics has flared into the open again after President Jacques Chirac delivered a public warning to his powerful Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy to rein in his ambitions.  

Aides to the 49-year-old presidential hopeful, often described as the government's most popular figure, were on Thursday pondering the best line of response following Chirac's unexpectedly vehement slapdown during the traditional July 14 televised interview from the Elysee palace.  

Seizing the opportunity of the Bastille Day celebrations to reassert his authority, Chirac made clear he would not accept any attempt by Sarkozy to combine his minister's post with leadership of the ruling party - a job which would give the young pretender a huge foot-up for a presidential bid in 2007.  

In recent months the relationship between the two men has turned from sullen suspicion to open rivalry as Sarkozy has spoken with ever greater candour of his determination to take over from the 71-year-old Chirac as head of a new generation of centre-right politicians.   

Sarkozy, who was moved to the finance ministry in March after a successful two years in charge of police and law-and-order, has been eyeing the presidency of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party which will fall vacant this month after the resignation of the Chirac favourite Alain Juppe.  

But Chirac said that if necessary he will sack Sarkozy from the government if he tries to hold the two positions simultaneously.  

"If any minister ... is elected president (of the UMP), he will resign immediately from his ministerial duties or I will myself bring his duties to an end," the president said.  

And in what was widely seen as a brutal dressing-down of his junior, the president went on: "There is no argument between the finance minister and myself for one simple reason: which is that ...

I make the decisions and he carries them out.  

"I will not let the ambitions or calculations of anyone disturb the programme of the next three years. I will oppose anything that brings us back to politics with a little 'p,' all the electoral rivalry," he said.   

Speculation was rife over how Sarkozy would react to the humiliation. He was due to address a party meeting Friday, though few expected him to up the ante with a clear statement of defiance. After a cabinet meeting Thursday, the minister said he was "uninterested in controversies and would not succumb to them."  

According to widespread comment in the newspapers, Sarkozy can happily bide his time before deciding whether to challenge the president head-on because no decision on the leadership of the UMP will be taken before a party congress in November.  

Supporters of the finance minister were delighted that apart from on one issue - the defence budget - Chirac articulated policies in his July 14 address that were first aired by Sarkozy himself: on the 35-hour week, for example, and the referendum on the European constitution.  

They also drew encouragement from the fact that it is now evidently accepted in the Chirac camp that Sarkozy is the front-runner for the presidency of the UMP with all that implies for his future prospects -- an admission of his overwhelming popularity among the party membership.  

However with Chirac returning to the domestic scene with a new air of assertiveness, the battle was far from over.

"Sooner or later, the moment of truth is going to come," said one advisor to Sarkozy quoted in Thursday's edition of Le Monde newspaper.

 

© AFP

 

Subject: French news

0 Comments To This Article