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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 April 2006, 21:55 GMT 22:55 UK
France looks to Sarko-Sego race
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Paris

Student protests in France on Tuesday dwindled to a shadow of their former selves.

Policeman salutes as Jacques Chirac passes on the Elysee Palace steps
Jacques Chirac must leave office next year

The heat had been taken out of the debate by the government's humiliating climb-down on Monday, when it withdrew the controversial youth jobs law, known as the CPE.

The law that sparked weeks of demonstrations is now dead and buried, with the main French trade unions preparing for the Easter break in celebratory mood.

The real issue here now is not so much the replacement job measures to be voted through the French parliament before it breaks up for Easter but the burning question: which potential presidential candidate has profited the most from French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's discomfiture?

The bets here are evenly spread. On the right there is his cabinet colleague, the sharp, ambitious Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is also leader of the governing centre-right UMP party.

And on the left, MP Segolene Royal, the Socialist in stilettos, a regional leader who is hotly tipped as France's first real potential Madame la Presidente, overtaking her piqued male colleagues from nowhere.

The idea of a Sarko-Sego battle has gripped the nation's imagination, with Madame Royal now the cover-woman of the moment, her elegant features smiling from the front pages of four of the country's leading news magazines this week.

Her features have for once displaced those of Mr Sarkozy from the news magazines' glossy covers, though no doubt he is planning a rapid return next week.

Gamble lost

Most French political analysts now rule out any miracle comeback for Dominique de Villepin as a presidential hopeful, after he was forced to eat humble pie on French television on Monday night.

Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace on 10 April

In a television interview, he told the French people that he regretted any misunderstandings over the controversial jobs law that had sparked weeks of protests. But his regrets came too late.

Even those who supported labour market reform in France shook their heads in despair at what they saw as his hubris in failing to consult France's unions or others as he tried to prove himself the strongman of the right.

It was a gamble provoked by his rivalry with 51-year-old Nicolas Sarkozy to win favour on the right - but a gamble that went disastrously wrong when the prime minister's attempts to show himself stronger than his predecessors were also fatally undermined by President Jacques Chirac himself.

It was he who dealt the final blow to the CPE and to his own chosen successor's hopes of following him through the golden gates of the Elysee Palace.

Socialist options

As Mr Chirac's long reign over France draws to a shaky close, leaving the country almost untouched by any of the deep reforms he promised more than a decade ago, the nation is gearing itself up for a bitter battle of succession.

French magazine covers showing Segolene Royal

Segolene Royal, 52, would be the people's choice on the left - but her own Socialist Party colleagues may decide they would prefer to field a candidate such as Lionel Jospin, despite his earlier failures, or even Madame Royal's own partner and father of her four children, Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande.

The country is intrigued by the possibility of a President Sarkozy or Madame la Presidente Royal, and the two will make interesting sparring partners over the coming months - their style, background and beliefs in stark contrast to one another.

She is an apparent conciliator, a listener, a woman who until now has revealed few firmly held political beliefs; he an often divisive man of action, whose views and beliefs are well-known already. The only obvious quality both share is a steely ambition.

All this is a political race whose result matters deeply.

Whether France chooses right or left next year - with possibly a strong showing for the far right once again - the winning candidate will be forced to confront the deep social and economic divides from which France is suffering in the dying days of Mr Chirac's 12-year presidency, as the nation waits for its own new dawn.

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