Sarkozy exit, EU vote to ruffle French politics

25th November 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Nov 25 (AFP) - France is on the verge of major political change as the coming man of the right Nicolas Sarkozy takes over at the ruling UMP party, while the opposition Socialists hold an internal vote which could have major repercussions on the fate of the European constitution.

PARIS, Nov 25 (AFP) - France is on the verge of major political change as the coming man of the right Nicolas Sarkozy takes over at the ruling UMP party, while the opposition Socialists hold an internal vote which could have major repercussions on the fate of the European constitution.

At a special congress in Paris the 49 year-old finance minister will be installed on Sunday as president of the Union for a Popular Movement after being voted in by an overwhelming majority of party members.

The move - which will be followed automatically by Sarkozy's resignation from the cabinet - is universally seen as a choreographed step towards a bid for the presidency in 2007 and opens up the prospect of open conflict with his arch-rival President Jacques Chirac.

Some 20,000 supporters are expected at the televised gathering in an exhibition centre in the northern suburb of Le Bourget, which French media are describing as a "coronation" ceremony for the young pretender.

Sarkozy has made no secret of his desire to take over from Chirac - earlier this year he said he thought about the presidency "not just when I'm shaving" - and his elevation to the UMP leadership has led to fears of bitter internecine conflict in the run-up to the next election.

Chirac, who when he accepts Sarkozy's resignation Monday will also be celebrating his 72nd birthday, has not ruled out running for a third term in 2007 and is known to be deeply suspicious of his ambitious challenger.

Speaking to Paris Match magazine this week Sarkozy stoked the anxieties of those close to Chirac who fear he will use his position at the UMP to create a centre of policy-making in opposition to the Elysee palace.

"At last I am going to be able to get back my freedom, to speak on every subject - which I was prevented from doing by my ministerial job. Foreign policy, health, education, domestic policy - whatever interests me ... I am really impatient to begin," he said.

However in the run-up to the Le Bourget congress both sides appeared to have called a truce in order to present a united front. Sarkozy is to deliver a message from the president to the party faithful, and Chirac's wife Bernadette is also expected to attend.

Meanwhile the opposition Socialist party is riven by a bitter argument over whether to recommend ratification of the EU's new constitutional treaty, which Chirac has promised will be put to the public in a referendum next year.

Party First Secretary Francois Hollande, who favours the constitution, has organised an internal vote by 120,000 card-carrying members next Wednesday - but the prospect of a majority defying the party leadership was dramatically increased when former prime minister Laurent Fabius joined the opponents.

Fabius allied himself with the left of the party, which believes the proposed constitution is a capitalists' charter, but he has been heavily criticised for jeopardising party unity and using the issue to push his own presidential ambitions.

Former prime minister Lionel Jospin, who also favours the constitution, warned this week that a "no" vote would "lead to a situation of grave instability" because the leadership would be at open odds with the rank and file on a matter of central importance.

Supporters of the EU constitution have also expressed the fear that a no vote in the Socialist camp would encourage opposition nationally, leading to the treaty's rejection in next year's referendum. Under EU rules the constitution would then be technically defunct.

Meanwhile Wednesday also sees a verdict in the appeal hearing of the former prime minister and Chirac confidant Alain Juppe, whose resignation from the UMP leadership opened the way for Sarkozy. In January Juppe was convicted of party fraud and barred from public office for 10 years.

A decision is also pending on who should replace Sarkozy at the finance ministry, with Health Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy and the chief executive of France Telecom, Thierry Breton, tipped as front-runners.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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