Sarkozy moves to take reins of French right

23rd November 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Nov 23, 2006 (AFP) - French presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy held breakfast talks with Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin Thursday, as the centre-right sought to patch up a bitter feud that is damaging its campaign for upcoming elections.

PARIS, Nov 23, 2006 (AFP) - French presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy held breakfast talks with Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin Thursday, as the centre-right sought to patch up a bitter feud that is damaging its campaign for upcoming elections.

During a half-hour meeting at Villepin's official residence, Sarkozy briefed the prime minister on a compromise agreement reached late Wednesday on the modalities for selecting the ruling Union for a Popular Movement's (UMP) offficial candidate at the April ballot.

The 51-year-old interior minister is runaway favourite to lead the right against socialist champion Ségolène Royal, 53, but he is fighting a rearguard action against supporters of President Jacques Chirac who want the option of an alternative candidate.

Among those named as possible challengers to Sarkozy are Villepin himself, 53, and Defence Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, 60. Chirac, 73, has also refused to rule out standing for a third term, saying only that he will reveal his intentions by March.

Anxious to press ahead with his personal campaign in order to counter the publicity blitz triggered by Royal's victory in a Socialist Party (PS) primary a week ago, Sarkozy has been held back by the Chirac camp which wants more time for internal party debate.

In an effort to heal the rift, the UMP's 100-member Political Bureau agreed on Wednesday evening to extend the declaration period for candidates to December 31 and to hold a series of "forums" around the country where policy differences can be aired.

The official candidate will be invested at a party congress on January 14, following a vote of the UMP's 300,000 members. An IPSOS poll this week showed that Sarkozy has the backing of 77 percent of party sympathisers, compared to 17 percent for Alliot-Marie and just six percent for Villepin.

Speculation mounted that Sarkozy, who is also the UMP's president, would make an early declaration in order seize back a news agenda that has been dominated by Royal's triumph and the contrasting discord inside the centre-right.

In what Le Canard Enchaîné weekly described as "Sarkozy's black week", the interior minister was accused by one pro-Chirac minister of stifling debate and "being incapable of allowing ideas that are different from his own."

Villepin indirectly accused him of "fishing in the waters of the (far-right) National Front" because of his tough language on law-and-order, and attacked his support for positive discrimination as a "dead-end street in a country so attached to merit and equality."

François Fillon, a former minister who is a close advisor to Sarkozy, urged Villepin and Alliot-Marie to declare themselves openly as candidates for the nomination, rather than continue sniping from the sidelines.

"Make up your minds. If you want to go for it, now is the time," he told RMC Info radio. "I do not understand people who say they have things to defend, who are apparently eager for battle, and then hesitate about launching their candidature."

France's political right has long been beset by internal divisions. At the  1995 presidential Chirac himself had to fight off a challenge from then prime minister Edouard Balladur — who was backed by a young Sarkozy.

Personal animosity towards Sarkozy from many in the Chirac camp is compounded by a deep political divide, commentators said, with traditional Gaullists seeing him as dangerously pro-American free-marketeer.

France's elections take place in two rounds on Sundays April 22 and May 6.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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