Sarkozy tries to lock up UMP support for presidential race

6th December 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Dec 6 (AFP) - France's outspoken interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who makes no secret of his ambition to be the country's next president, moves a step closer Tuesday as he pushes through changes to the ruling party's statute book to ensure he is named as its candidate.

PARIS, Dec 6 (AFP) - France's outspoken interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who makes no secret of his ambition to be the country's next president, moves a step closer Tuesday as he pushes through changes to the ruling party's statute book to ensure he is named as its candidate.

Sarkozy, 50, who is also head of the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), was expected to win overwhelming support at an evening meeting of its 100-member political bureau for a proposition to allow the party rank-and-file to name its presidential contender.

Strongly backed by a large majority of the UMP's 200,000 card-carrying members, Sarkozy is certain to win any internal 'primary' -- giving him access to party funds and organisational machinery that could be crucial in the May 2007 electoral race.

The move represents a tactical victory for the interior minister in his barely concealed battle of wills with Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who also hopes to take over from his political mentor President Jacques Chirac at the Elysée Palace.

Villepin -- who has the backing of the minority 'Chiracien' camp inside the UMP -- has said he is against the idea of the party choosing its presidential candidate because it contradicts the UMP's Gaullist origins.

"In our institutions in the Fifth Republic -- and this is my personal Gaullist conviction -- presidential elections are an encounter between a man and the people. As far as my political family is concerned, I would like this encounter to be preserved," Villepin said last week.

Wartime hero Charles de Gaulle became the first president of the Fifth Republic in 1958 after winning popular approval for a constitution that considerably diluted the influence of political parties.

But Sarkozy supporters argue that leaders of most other democracies are first chosen by their parties, and that the mystique of the Gaullist super-leader has done more harm than good over the last quarter century. They also note that Villepin has never stood for elected office.

"We have to stop saying that we are electing some kind of infallible supreme guide who -- once we have voted him in -- is right on every subject. I am for a democracy that is more modest," Sarkozy said on Sunday, in a clear reference to Chirac.

Under the proposed change, the UMP's rule-book will include a new clause stating that "The congress (of members) chooses the candidate supported by the party for the election to the presidency of the republic."

The clause is to be ratified in an Internet vote by members early next year. At the end of 2006 candidates from inside the party will declare themselves, and early 2007 a congress will be held to choose which contender will have the UMP's official backing.

Supporters of Villepin's candidacy have played down the significance of the rule change, and point out that nothing will stop him presenting a separate campaign -- though they admit he will have to find funding from alternative donors.

French presidential elections take place over two rounds, with the two leading contenders from round one making it through to the play-off.

Both Villepin and Sarkozy have seen their ratings boosted by their handling of the recent riots crisis in the country's high-immigration suburbs. A poll last week suggested that Sarkozy is the more likely of the two to win through to the second round, where he should easily beat any candidate from the opposition Socialist party.

However if Sarkozy and Villepin both made it into round two, Villepin would be the most likely winner, the poll showed.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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