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Last Updated: Friday, 12 December, 2003, 16:10 GMT
Popular Sarkozy challenges Chirac

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC Paris correspondent

In France, a bloody political battle is taking place between the ageing President Jacques Chirac and his younger protege, the Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy posing in front of a speed control sign during the inauguration of the first automatic speed detecting radar.
His omnipresence in the media has led to calls for a Sarkozy-free day
Forty-eight-year old Mr Sarkozy has dared to suggest in public that Mr Chirac should not seek a third term in office, but retire to make way for a younger man.

Mr Sarkozy clearly has someone in mind for the top job - himself.

As the minister, nicknamed Sarko, is currently more popular in the polls in France than his boss, Mr Chirac, that is creating trouble at the top.

So omnipresent is Mr Sarkozy on France's screens and in its newspapers that left-wing journalists have proposed having a "Sarkozy-free day".

But that's unlikely to happen anytime soon. The dynamic young minister and his photogenic wife, Cecilia, have no intention of lowering their profile.

Since coming to office, Mr Sarkozy has put more policemen on the streets than ever before, cracked down on drugs, crime and terrorism, and two thirds of the voters say they think he is great.

Mr Chirac does not trust anyone right now - except perhaps his wife and his daughter
Political analyst Frantz Olivier Giesbert
Not all of them, though. Mr Sarkozy's embarrassing moments included the time when the rather short interior minister was forced to stand on a white plastic chair to shout down hecklers in Corsica.

Yet none of his failures seem to stick - he is a Teflon politician.

And now, he is saying the unsayable - calling for the ageing Mr Chirac to stand down after his current term in office.

That is tantamount to regicide, especially as it was Jacques Chirac who had long been Mr Sarkozy's mentor.


But this is not his first betrayal of the boss. Mr Sarkozy backed a different candidate for the presidency in the mid 1990s - a betrayal Mr Chirac found hard to forget.

Political journalist Frantz Olivier Giesbert, editor-in-chief of the journal Le Point, thinks that Mr Chirac does not trust anyone right now - except perhaps his wife and his daughter.

"He was so betrayed that he has no confidence in anyone, especially in Nicolas Sarkozy," Mr Giesbert says.

French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy (l), Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and President Jacques Chirac (r)
President Chirac was once Mr Sarkozy's mentor
He believes that with four years to go before the next presidential election, Mr Chirac still feels secure enough to laugh off the challenge from his interior minister, though he is unlikely to promote him any further.

Yet Mr Giesbert thinks he is clearly a serious future candidate for the top job, because he has charisma and is a very good speaker.

"When you see him on TV, it is always an event. He is so popular in France, because he is a man of action," he says.

A charismatic public speaker, who has taken the initiative on a host of issues from immigration to integration, Mr Sarkozy's politics and personality have polarised the nation.

The French either love him or hate him.

One man I spoke to on the streets of Paris says he agrees with Mr Sarkozy's policies, especially on the security front.

"We feel more secure in Paris. You can see, for example, that there are a lot of policemen in Champs Elysee. I think he is on the top of the list to succeed Mr Chirac," he says.

Touchy subject

A young woman disagrees. She says she hates Mr Sarkozy because he has punished teenagers for taking drugs and is very intolerant.

"Sarkozy is too young for me. He is like a little dog, too much excited," another woman adds.

Not the sort of comparison Mr Sarkozy would enjoy.

Yet his own clearly-expressed personal ambitions have tapped into a widespread feeling in France that Mr Chirac - already in his early 70s - should not cling to power too long.

It is a touchy subject at the Elysee Palace, where aides to the president have had to deny that Mr Chirac is going deaf and dyes his hair.

So, with a little patience, Mr Sarkozy may find himself in the running for the top job - if he hasn't ruined his chances by wielding the knife too soon.

The BBC's Caroline Wyatt
"Mr Chirac has so far laughed off the idea of retiring"

France's man of iron
27 Jun 03  |  Europe

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