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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 May 2006, 23:06 GMT 00:06 UK
Ambitious Sarkozy works the crowd
By Clive Myrie
BBC News, Paris

I was at a dinner party the other night where half the people around the table thought it would be a terrible shame for France if Nicolas Sarkozy became president - and the other half thought it would be a good thing.

Nicolas Sarkozy greets supporters in Nimes
Nicolas Sarkozy sharply divides opinion in French society

He is a man who polarises opinion, but as France counts down the months to the presidential election next year, more and more people seem to be warming to the plain-speaking former lawyer.

He has not officially declared he is going to run for the Elysee Palace, but it is surely only a matter of time.

His speech in Nimes on Tuesday was given in a hall packed with members of his governing centre-right UMP party, but it was also carried live on television. This was a speech addressing the people of France.

No-one can deny he is a great orator, with a powerful presence belying a slim, short frame.

He has a commanding voice that echoed across the hall and into people's homes.

What he said perhaps entered people's hearts too.

He talked about his love for France, that everyone's first duty was to love this land and to be proud of it.

His wide-ranging speech pushed all the right buttons, touched on all the things any voter should be thinking about before a big election

But he was not afraid to catalogue what was wrong with his country, from public services to the economy, the schools system and even the courts.

He said he wanted to convince those who were disillusioned and no longer believed in politics to have faith.

It was a speech regularly punctuated by applause as he worked the crowd, at times gesticulating to emphasise a point, speeding up his delivery, or slowing it down.

This is a man who knows how to connect with people, with voters.

He is a "great communicator" and one thing any great communicator must do is talk about the issues that really concern people.

In this regard, Mr Sarkozy is a genius.

Smear campaign

His speech focused on some of the talking points likely to dominate next year's presidential election, like immigration.

He has advocated tough new rules making it difficult for the families of immigrants already in France to join them from abroad, and polls suggest the majority of French people agree with him.

He said he would be tough on crime, another big concern, appealing to those who might be tempted to vote for a far-right candidate next year.

His wide-ranging speech pushed all the right buttons, touched on all the things any voter should be thinking about before a big election.

But there was another area he addressed, that of corruption and dirty tricks.

In fact, it is likely to be his comments on the scandal that is engulfing the very highest levels of government that will grab all the headlines.

Mr Sarkozy believes attempts have been made to link him to a corruption scandal involving illegal commissions on the sale of French frigates to Taiwan in 1991.

In his speech, he did not mention Dominique de Villepin's name, but Mr Sarkozy's supporters say the prime minister and possibly President Jacques Chirac too were involved in the smear campaign to knock him out of a possible run for the Elysee Palace.

He said these kinds of dirty tricks had no place in the Republic, that no one should have to face this kind of scandal, that he would go all the way to uncover the truth.

Mr Sarkozy is a man of enormous ambition.

There is still a year to go before the presidential election, but this speech was as clear an indication as you are going to get that he intends to join the race.


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