Right in disarray in face of Royal steamroller

22nd November 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Nov 21, 2006 (AFP) - France's ruling centre-right threatened to break into rival camps Tuesday, as internal bickering overshadowed attempts by presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy to mount a counter-attack against the newly nominated socialist candidate Ségolène Royal.

PARIS, Nov 21, 2006 (AFP) - France's ruling centre-right threatened to break into rival camps Tuesday, as internal bickering overshadowed attempts by presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy to mount a counter-attack against the newly nominated socialist candidate Ségolène Royal.

With Sarkozy anxious to seize back the initiative following Royal's sweeping primary victory last week, he was instead fighting a rearguard action against supporters of President Jacques Chirac who accuse him of steamrolling dissent in order to block rival candidates.

Managers at the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) desperately sought to patch up the rift by arranging talks between the party chief and his two main antagonists, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Defence Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, but attempts to fix a meeting Wednesday came to nothing.

Hostile from the start to the UMP leader's presidential ambitions, the so-called 'Chiraciens' want to keep alive the chance of an alternative centre-right contender at April's election, and accuse Sarkozy, 51, of turning the party into his personal electoral machine.

Angry Sarkozistes retorted Tuesday that the Gaullist old guard is destroying the centre-right's only serious chance of victory against a resurgent Socialist Party (PS).

"Sarkozy is a machine for winning ... So it is unsettling to see the person who is our best hope at the presidentials being gratuitously attacked on the basis of personal whims and interests," said UMP deputy Eric Woerth.

"When we have a candidate who has it in him to win the election, it is unacceptable for a minority in the party to have fun helping him lose," said another, Claude Goasguen.

But Hervé Mariton, who is close to Villepin, said that free discussion should not be subordinated to the interests of the party.

"The UMP must have the humility and intelligence to understand that it cannot alone fill the space need for debate in advance of the election," he said in a clear swipe at Sarkozy.

Tensions have burst to the fore since Royal, 53, beat two more experienced contenders in what the PS trumpeted as a triumph for democratic debate, and amid growing pressure for the UMP to bring forward its own nomination process in order to get back in the headlines.

On Thursday Alliot-Marie was booed by Sarkozy supporters during a meeting of UMP officials, and on Monday a 'Chiracien' government minister — François Goulard — openly accused Sarkozy of "refusing to allow political debate" and being "incapable of allowing ideas that are different from his own."

Sarkozy, who is also interior minister, is almost certain of election by the UMP's 293,000 members before a party congress on January 14. According to a new IPSOS poll, 77 percent of UMP supporters back his candidacy, compared to 17 percent for Alliot-Marie, 60, and six percent for Villepin, 53.

Chirac, 73, has also refused to rule out running for a third term, despite polls that show that more than 75 percent of the public are opposed.

But in spite of the apparent hopelessness of their own ambitions, the trio appear bent on keeping their options open and thwarting Sarkozy's bid to emerge as sole champion of the right.

Animosities have long beset France's political right, and in 1995 Chirac himself had to fight off a rival presidential bid from then prime minister  Edouard Balladur — who was backed by a young Sarkozy.

But behind today's personal ill-will also lie deep political differences, analysts said, with 'Chiraciens' seeing Sarkozy as a pro-American free marketeer who will betray the Gaullist legacy and risks alienating much of the country with his tough rhetoric on law and order.

Traditional Gaullists are also deeply suspicious of political parties and regard the presidential election — in the words of Villepin — as an "encounter between the people and a man."

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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