Sarkozy 'the reformer' officially throws hat in ring

30th November 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Nov 30, 2006 (AFP) - Nicolas Sarkozy, France's centre-right interior minister, on Thursday launched his bid to unseat the rising star of the French left Ségolène Royal as frontrunner in next year's presidential race.

PARIS, Nov 30, 2006 (AFP) - Nicolas Sarkozy, France's centre-right interior minister, on Thursday launched his bid to unseat the rising star of the French left Ségolène Royal as frontrunner in next year's presidential race.

The interior minister — whose candidacy was never in doubt as the country's most popular right-wing politician — formally declared his intention to run in an interview appearing Thursday in half a dozen regional newspapers.

In it the 51-year-old, who casts himself as the natural candidate of reform, said he wanted to "get French society moving again" through a belief in "the virtues of work, merit, reward and effort".

But he also sought to reassure those alarmed by his talk of a "rupture" in French public life, promising a "peaceful break" with the past. He was to appear on national television late Thursday to expand on his position.

Sarkozy has built his image around a tough, hands-on approach to the economy, immigration and law and order, but faces a formidable challenge from the Socialist Party's (PS) Royal ahead of the election next April and May.

Both in their fifties, media-savvy and casting themselves as outsiders willing to challenge party orthodoxy, Royal's sweeping victory in the PS primary this month has handed her a temporary advantage.

The latest polls place her ahead, with 42 percent of voters saying she would make a better head of state, against Sarkozy's 36 percent.

She is seen as more "reassuring", "modern", "honest" and "nicer", according to a recent poll, while Sarkozy is seen as having more "authority" and "statesmanship" — especially on foreign matters.

Royal has already set to work on boosting her stateswoman credentials, leaving on Thursday on a high-profile tour of Middle East, starting in Lebanon and continuing to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

To add to his troubles, Sarkozy — who chairs the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) — is launching into the campaign at the helm of a divided party.

Though he has the backing of 75 percent of UMP militants — making it all-but-certain he will secure the party nomination in January — he faces a rearguard challenge from rivals loyal to President Jacques Chirac.

According to the right-wing Le Figaro newspaper, one Chirac ally, Defence Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, has made up her mind to stand for the UMP nomination and will announce her decision in the coming weeks.

Sarkozy could actually benefit from an Alliot-Marie candidacy, which would create the impression of a healthy internal debate without posing a serious threat since she has little more than 15-20 percent of militant support.

But more worryingly for him, neither Chirac, who turned 74 on Wednesday, nor his ally Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin have ruled out standing, even outside the party framework.

If the mainstream right heads into the election split between Sarkozy and a second contender, there are concerns the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen could beat both into the second round.

With 17 percent of first-round voting intentions, Le Pen's poll score is almost twice as high as five months before the 2002 presidentials, when he knocked out the Socialist candidate to face off against Chirac.

Sarkozy, who refused in the interview to say when he would stand down as interior minister to concentrate on the presidential race, faced fresh calls on Thursday to quickly leave the government.

PS leader Francois Hollande said on French radio three was a "problem of incompatibility between the job of interior minister and the status of candidate", since the interior ministry organises the election.

"When you are the referee, you can't also be a player," he said.

A UMP deputy close to Villepin, Georges Tron, also said he hoped Sarkozy would leave "as soon as possible".

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

 

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