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MARSEILLE, France, Sept 3, 2006 (AFP) - French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy appeared almost certain to lead the right into next year's presidential election, after a triumphant party congress which concluded Sunday in Marseille with a blistering attack on the "generation of May 1968".
Speaking before 7,000 young members of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), Sarkozy, 51, said modern France had been betrayed by the left-wing ideals that took root after the 1968 student uprising, and called for a society built around "a reassertion of the value of work".
"(The generation of 1968) inculcated everywhere — in politics, in education, in society — an inversion of values and a political correctness of which today's young people are the principal victims," Sarkozy said to applause.
"The truth is that the students of May '68 were the spoiled children of 30 years of prosperity. You are the children of crisis. They lived a life without constraints. Today you are picking up the bill," he said.
The minister — who is also president of the UMP — was speaking at the end of a three-day post-summer "university" which is the last major gathering of party faithful before a congress in January which will designate the right's candidate for presidential elections in April.
An opinion poll Sunday reinforced Sarkozy's massive lead over possible rivals within the UMP, indicating that 45 percent of the public want him as party candidate compared to just eight percent for his closest contender, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.
President Jacques Chirac, who has refused to rule out running for an unprecedented third term, had the support of just three percent in the survey in Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper, behind Employment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo and Defence Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie.
The nominee will lead the UMP into a two-round election, in which the principal opponent will be a Socialist party (PS) candidate to be chosen by a vote of party members in November.
Front-runner to win the PS candidacy is the head of the Poitou-Charentes regional council Ségolène Royal, 52 — an elegant newcomer to the top tier of French politics, but a woman whom polls show to be the only left-winger who could beat Sarkozy next year.
However Royal faces opposition from inside her party, many of whose leading figures accuse her of building a campaign based on image rather than ideas. Former PS minister Martine Aubry said on Friday that the test of a president was "not whether or not you have good measurements".
Sarkozy drew the strongest applause Sunday when he attacked the "dependency and welfare" culture epitomised by the Socialists' 35-hour week, and promised to bring unemployment down to five percent in five years by "giving work back its true value, because it is work that creates work".
"I propose reducing taxes on labour, so that employment plays a greater part in economic growth. I propose that people should earn more if they work more ... I propose replacing the language of redistribution with the language of growth," he said.
Among his suggestions were a lifetime contract for retraining, and a network of "Houses of Creation" — to mirror the Houses of Culture set up across France in the 1960s — where young entrepreneurs can pool resources and ideas.
Among the audience were France's rock icon Johnny Hallyday who last week came out in support of the interior minister, and the rapper Doc Gyneco who on Saturday described Sarkozy as a "friend and a kind of mentor".
Sarkozy's chances of getting the UMP nomination have been boosted by the eclipse over the summer of Prime Minister Villepin, who plunged in the polls after his failed attempt to introduce a youth labour reform and his uncertain role in an alleged bid to smear Sarkozy.
In a show of unity Villepin appeared before the UMP conference on Friday, and in an address described Sarkozy as a minister of "will, courage and energy".
But reaction from the opposition to Sarkozy's address was scathing. Former PS prime minister Laurent Fabius — who is also a presidential hopeful — said the "reality of his programme is social brutality, favours to big finance, and the politics of spectacle".
Far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, 77, who was runner-up in the 2002 election and has declared his candidacy again for 2007, described the speech as "pure demagogy ... What's funny is seeing Sarkozy call for 'rupture' when he's been a pillar of one of the ruling parties for the last 30 years".
Subject: French news
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