Sarkozy set to exit ministry to take up UMP reins

21st November 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Nov 21 (AFP) - A crucial week in French politics gets underway Monday, as the rising star of the right Nicolas Sarkozy prepares the next step in his bid for the country's presidency by leaving government and taking the reins of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party.

PARIS, Nov 21 (AFP) - A crucial week in French politics gets underway Monday, as the rising star of the right Nicolas Sarkozy prepares the next step in his bid for the country's presidency by leaving government and taking the reins of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party.

The 49-year-old finance minister will attend his last cabinet meeting on Wednesday before being inaugurated at a special congress of the UMP being staged with much media fanfare next Sunday at the Le Bourget exhibition centre in northern Paris.

Voting for a new party president among the UMP's 128,000 members ended Sunday with two other candidates in the running, but there was no question that Sarkozy would emerge as the winner. Under rules laid down by President Jacques Chirac, he will automatically resign from government once chosen.

The stage was thus being set for the second half of Chirac's mandate which is likely to be dominated by the bitter rivalry between the two men, with Sarkozy using the platform and powers of patronage afforded by his new job to prepare his challenge for presidential elections in 2007.

The two men are theoretically from the same Gaullist school of politics, but Sarkozy has made no secret of his frustration with the 71-year-old president's style of government and has taken every opportunity to set out his differences on economic, social and foreign policy.

Most recently the finance minister published a book urging a modification of France's rigid separation of religion and state so that the country's five million-strong Muslim population can benefit from government funding of mosques and be less reliant on foreign countries.

Chirac swiftly put his minister down, describing France's 1905 law on secularity as a "pillar of the temple." He opposes Sarkozy's well-known support for positive discrimination for French Arabs, and the two men also differ over the growing question of Turkish admission to the EU - Chirac being in favour.

Commentators have warned that the next two and a half years could see Chirac constrained by a new kind of "cohabitation" - the word normally used to describe a president's uneasy relationship with a hostile prime minister - this time with a supposedly friendly party chief sniping from the wings.

On Saturday the two men held an hour of talks at the Elysee palace which were presented to the media as a sign of a truce, but Chirac loyalist National Assembly speaker Jean-Louis Debre warned Sarkozy against any attempt to undermine the president.

"His loyalty will have to be total. The UMP is not a party whose function is to put a man into presidential orbit. Trench-warfare with the government - even the smallest sign of it - will not be tolerated," he told Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper.

Sarkozy is widely seen as leading a new generation of centre-right politicians who are frustrated that the promise of sweeping change that accompanied Chirac's 2002 re-election has not been met, and who believe the president has too consensual a political instinct to brook any true reform.

Sarkozy represents "a brand of pragmatic liberalism which does not baulk at borrowing ideas from British and American theory ... on issues such as security, immigration or the relation between the republic and religion," wrote Bruno Seznec in Le Figaro newspaper.

A poll in the newspaper showed that 76 percent of centre-right voters believe Sarkozy will be a good candidate for the 2007 election. In another survey Chirac saw his nationwide popularity go up seven points to 48 percent, largely as a result of his high profile over the crisis in Ivory Coast and the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The leadership of the UMP party became available after the resignation of the former prime minister Alain Juppe, who was convicted of party fraud earlier this year. A verdict in Juppe's appeal is due on December 1.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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