Villepin attacked for wrecking right's hopes

11th January 2007, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Jan 11, 2007 (AFP) - Tempers flared inside France's centre-right

PARIS, Jan 11, 2007 (AFP) - Tempers flared inside France's centre-right

as deputies accused Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin of wrecking the presidential hopes of their champion Nicolas Sarkozy, due to be officially nominated as an election candidate at the weekend.

In angry scenes at a caucus meeting of the ruling Union for a Popular

Movement (UMP) at the National Assembly, the prime minister was taken to task for failing to back his government colleague, despite Sarkozy's overwhelming popularity among party rank-and-file.

Law-makers who attended the behind-closed-doors gathering described the atmosphere as "extremely brutal and tense", as Villepin defended his decision -- made public two days ago -- not to vote for Sarkozy at a special party congress on Sunday.

Sarkozy, 51 year-old interior minister and UMP chief, is the only contender in a ballot of 330,000 party members for the chance to represent the centre-right against Socialist candidate Segolene Royal at presidential elections in April.

However his hoped-for triumph is being spoiled by sniping from Villepin and others in the inner circle of President Jacques Chirac, who continue to keep alive the possibility of an alternative candidacy -- possibly that of Chirac himself.

"The prime minister was isolated and tried to explain himself, but his position was incomprehensible. He was rounded on," said UMP deputy Yves Bur who attended the caucus meeting.

Witnesses said that Villepin was greeted with howls of outrage when he argued that "diversity" was the best way of ensuring victory at the election, and that this was why he was not rallying behind Sarkozy.

With polls giving Royal a slight edge in the presidential race, many UMP deputies fear that glaring divisions are dragging down their best hope of victory. Some Sarkozy supporters even suspect that Chirac would prefer a Socialist presidency rather than be succeeded by his archrival.

However Sarkozy's opponents say his manifesto call for a "clean break" with

past economic and political habits risks alienating much of the electorate,

and that he is betraying the Gaullist tradition of social consensus.

Sarkozy -- who also attended the caucus session -- reportedly appealed directly to Villepin with the words: "We cannot part like this. I need everyone. I need you."

The interior minister, who has the backing of 82 percent of UMP members as well as several government ministers, won an important new endorsement Tuesday with a message of support from Alain Juppe, the former prime minister known in the past for his close links to Chirac.

"I have known Nicolas Sarkozy for a long time. I know his strengths and weaknesses, as he knows mine. I appreciate the capacity for action which he has demonstrated since 2002. It is a major asset for the leader of a great nation in a turbulent world," Juppe wrote on his personal Internet site.

He said he shared many of Sarkozy's ideas, notably on immigration, tax, the European Union, minorities and social welfare.

According to Juppe, "the time for debate inside our political family is now over." However he added that were Chirac to decide to run for a third term "a new situation would arise, which each of us would then have to consider."

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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