Sarkozy: hyperactive rightwinger girded for battle Royal

15th January 2007, Comments 0 comments

Polls show that Nicolas Sarkozy has a popular touch, but they also expose his biggest weakness: people either love him or hate him. Hugh Schofield profiles the French ruling party's nominee for April's presidential election.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French ruling party's nominee for April's presidential election, is a hyperactive rightwinger who believes France is failing because it has ducked essential reforms — and that it is his destiny to see them through.

Nicolas Sarkozy: destined to reform France?

The 51-year-old son of an Hungarian immigrant has come to dominate France's political scene in the last five years, during which he has served as interior minister (twice), finance minister and, since November 2004, president of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).

With relentless energy, constant media exposure and a steady flow of new laws, he has sought to impose himself as the natural candidate to lead France into a "clean break" from a discredited past.

Polls show that "Sarko", as he is known, has a popular touch -- many in France respond well to his plain-talking and "man of action" persona — but they also expose his biggest weakness: more than other mainstream politicians he has polarised the public. People either love him or hate him.

The man who set up the country's first official Islamic body and argues for US-style positive discrimination to favour disadvantaged immigrants is thus reviled on the political left and in the poor "banlieus" (suburbs) for his hard line on law and order.

Much-reported remarks before the 2005 riots, when he described delinquents as "racaille" or rabble, convinced many that he is a more presentable version of far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, and his biggest handicap is the fear that as president he will divide rather than unite the nation.

Born in January 1955, Sarkozy had a privileged upbringing in the affluent Paris suburb of Neuilly where he served as mayor from 1983 to 2002.  He studied law and — unlike most of France's ruling class — avoided the elite National Administration School (ENA).

His political career began in the 1970s as a supporter of future president Jacques Chirac, with whom his career became closely entangled. Chirac initially saw him as a possible heir to the Gaullist mantle, but the two fell out after Sarkozy's support for a rival in the 1995 election.

Recently Sarkozy's own presidential ambitions have been dogged by suspicions that Chirac, and his ally Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, are trying to block his path to power.

Sarkozy served as budget minister from 1993 to 1995, and was later secretary-general of the RPR party, precursor of the UMP. In 1999 he led the RPR to a disastrous defeat in European elections.

With Chirac's reelection in 2002 Sarkozy was overlooked for the post of prime minister and instead took over at interior, where he began his hectic progress towards the 2007 presidential deadline.

Anxious to break with what he sees as an outdated state-centred economic system, Sarkozy urges the need for France to adapt to globalisation via reforms that he says are now commonplace in the so-called "Anglo-Saxon world".

He has called for looser labour laws to bring down unemployment, the sell-off of public housing, cuts in the number of civil servants and private investment in the university system. His support for positive discrimination is highly controversial in a land wedded to the principal of equality.

On Europe, Sarkozy has called for a slimmed down mini-constitution to replace the text that was rejected by French voters in a 2005 referendum, and he opposes Turkish entry to the European Union.

He wants to improve links with the United States, saying in a recent book that he "feels much closer to American society than to many others" — leading the opposition Socialist party to issue a diatribe last week describing him as an "American neo-con with a French passport."

But recognising that his greatest task in the months leading to April's election is to woo the centre-ground, Sarkozy has recently toned his rhetoric — calling for a "rupture tranquille" (smooth break) and arguing that his support for economic reform is not based on free-market ideology.  

Twice married, Sarkozy has three children — the third by his current wife Cecilia with whom his stormy relationship has received widespread coverage in the gossip magazines.

Short of stature, dark of hair and burning with ambition, Sarkozy has been called a latterday Bonaparte, bent on transforming the country by authority and will power.

Opposing him across the divide is Socialist candidate Royal, whose ability to harness popular fervour behind a dream of renaissance has evoked comparison with another national hero: Joan of Arc.

15 January 2007

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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