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Nicolas Sarkozy ploughs a presidential profile

PARIS, March 31 (AFP) – Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s most popular politician, was removed Wednesday as interior minister, the government’s number two post, and named chief of the country’s troubled economy.

Young, able and ambitious, Sarkozy has made no bones about his desire to unseat President Jacques Chirac in the next presidential election in 2007.

Chirac named him minister of the interior and security two years ago, passing over the independent-minded right-winger who had been tipped for the prime minister’s job, in favour of Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

His profile was considered too doctrinaire for the prime ministership, which Chirac wanted filled by the more consensual Raffarin.

As interior and security minister, Sarkozy has spearheaded a drive against a rising crime rate, the law-and-order issue that underpinned the far-right National Front (FN) candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen’s shock second-place showing in the 2002 vote.

Sarkozy, 49, was budget minister and government spokesman under prime minister Edouard Balladur from 1993 to 1995.

Although a close aide to president Chirac during the 1988 campaign, Sarkozy backed rival Balladur in 1995.

But two years later he and Chirac were reconciled. He served as secretary-general of Chirac’s RPR party and was a key member of his reelection team.

“Sarko” – as he is known – has always had the reputation of being a young man in a hurry. Fiercely ambitious, he is a conviction politician who makes no apologies for his right-wing views.

He has “la niaque,” according to one RPR insider – French jargon meaning a tough, fighting spirit – though critics say he is authoritarian.

Born in January 1955, the son of a Hungarian refugee who came to France after World War II, Sarkozy studied political science and became a lawyer before joining the RPR’s central committee at the age of 24.

He has a master’s degree in law, an advanced degree (DEA) in political science from the elite Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) and is also mayor of the wealthy western Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.

A Gaullist militant from the age of 19, Sarkozy – whose full name is Sarkozy de Nagy-Bocsa – became a member of the central committee of the RPR in 1979, secretary general of the party from 1998-99 and interim president from April-June 1999.

Married with three children, he is a keen cyclist and stamp-collector.

Sarkozy’s collision course with the centre-right president has been public, the subject of screaming headlines.

On policy the minister has also marked his own territory, publicly disagreeing with the president on the hot issue of affirmative action. While Chirac has stuck to the view that discriminating in favour of Muslim immigrants is un-French, Sarkozy has said it is vital to encourage integration.

In a political system in which ministers are expected to doff their caps to the head of state, his behavior has been deliberately provocative. What vexes the Elysee is that Sarkozy’s opinion ratings remain in the high 60s – oustripping Chirac by several points – and that makes him hard to touch.

“In an increasingly complex political universe, Nicolas Sarkozy travels with simple ideas. He wants to be president of the republic. Not very original, but he has decided to get there by the shortest route possible,” the newspaper Liberation remarked in an editorial earlier this year.


                                         Subject: French news