Sarkozy 'too popular to fire': Raffarin

19th January 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Jan 17 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin ended his long silence over the presidential ambitions of his outspoken interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, but in a call to order relayed through the media on Saturday admitted that "Sarko" was too popular to fire.

PARIS, Jan 17 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin ended his long silence over the presidential ambitions of his outspoken interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, but in a call to order relayed through the media on Saturday admitted that "Sarko" was too popular to fire.

Speaking to journalists invited for a New Year's visit to his office on Friday, Raffarin suggested that Sarkozy had overstepped the bounds of his rank by taking on President Jacques Chirac in a slew of pointed rhetorical jabs.

"Nicolas should be careful when he advances onto territory other than his own," he told the group of reporters from the French dailies Le Figaro, Liberation and Le Parisien.

"One must beware of the temptations of high altitudes," he said, adding a warning about the "star-ization" of his ambitious 48-year-old cabinet member, who tops political approval polls.

Despite Sarkozy's not-so-secret spat with Chirac, Raffarin said he was a key figure for the current government and its ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).

"Have you seen his popularity?" the premier asked. "I can't fire him, not when he could win us the elections!"

 Regional elections will be held in March. Sarkozy, who turns 49 at the end of January, has made it clear he is looking beyond that, to his own run for the presidency in 2007, when the incumbent Chirac will be 74.

The French media - and public - have relished the darts Sarkozy has sent Chirac's way, to which the president has not responded.

In the most recent round, the minister launched into a litany against sumo wrestling - a sport loved by Chirac, known for his passion for things Japanese.

Raffarin, weighing in on the affair, said: "I wouldn't make the mistake of speaking of a subject which is doubly sacred."

The French magazine Paris Match reported that Sarkozy, during a visit to Hong Kong last week, had said: "How can anyone be fascinated by these battles between fat guys with slicked-down ponytails? Sumo wrestling is really not a sport for intellectuals."

"Diplomacy is a difficult thing," Raffarin commented, in a subtle reminder that Sarkozy's job - for now - remains the interior affairs of the French state.

Sarkozy denied on Saturday he had made such a strong criticism of sumo.

But Raffarin is seen as having little hold over his minister and watching the political jockeying from the sidelines, and his comments Friday were a first bout of overt - if light-handed - criticism.

The prime minister cannot compete with Sarkozy in the public eye, with a plummeting popularity level hitting 29 percent in a December survey, while the interior minister has soared up to 73 percent in ratings.

Without even referring to Raffarin, Sarkozy told Le Monde newspaper last week that he had quelled the most powerful man in office. "Chirac doesn't hate me. It is worse: he fears me," he was quoted as saying.

Hours after the papers reported that Raffarin was attempting to call Sarkozy to order, the prime minister's office issued a statement stressing that "no reshuffle is being planned".

© AFP

                                Subject: France news

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