By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Paris
Nicolas Sarkozy, who is leading the right's challenge to retain the French presidency, has reached out to voters in a televised interview, painting himself as the candidate of change, reform and unity while promising to protect the most vulnerable in French society.
Mr Sarkozy is seen as one of the favourites to get the top job
The 51-year-old French interior minister pledged to bring a new vision and vigour to France, in his first public appearance since announcing he would run for the nomination as the governing centre-right UMP's presidential candidate.
As party leader, the driven and energetic Mr Sarkozy is almost certain to win the right-wing UMP's nomination in January, ahead of April's elections, but he is seen by many in France as a deeply divisive figure, and is closely associated with President Chirac's unpopular government, in which he has long served as a minister.
Yet in the interview on France2, he promised a "gentle" break with the past, painting himself as the only presidential candidate with the energy and the vision to guide this troubled country towards better times.
"Thirty or 40 years ago, for those who grew up in the 1960s, the future was full of promise. Now it seems full of threat for some.
"But I want us to destroy these divisions within France, and I say to all in France who want hope for their children, to those who don't want to resign themselves to unemployment, insecurity or injustice: 'We can change France'," Mr Sarkozy reassured his audience.
But he insisted it would take a change of generation, a change in approach and a more ambitious vision, though he acknowledged that many in France were afraid of change.
"People want to be protected as well, and to be brought together," Mr Sarkozy said. "The challenge for the president is to embody both change and protection at the same time."
Some voters, though, wonder if he really can unite the nation, when he has divided his own party and even the cabinet.
Mr Sarkozy's candidacy has left some of the UMP old guard fuming. His long-time rival, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, has seen his own chances of the presidency dwindle, while Mr Sarkozy's former mentor President Chirac has hinted that he might want to stand again.
Soon, the Defence Minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, is expected to announce her own rival candidacy for the UMP nomination, with her backers claiming that only a woman can fight the seductions of the Socialist candidate, Segolene Royal.
Ms Royal has said she wants to write a new page in French history
Sarkozy loyalists, though, have little doubt that their man will win through. Laurent Wauquiez, the youngest MP in the French Parliament, is a staunch supporter of Mr Sarkozy's candidacy.
"It's absolutely archaic to think that only a woman can beat a woman. It's macho nonsense.
"Only a good candidate can beat a good candidate, and I think that Nicolas Sarkozy can beat Segolene Royal. We need something new and we need a new generation," he said.
Nicolas Sarkozy has turned the party that once helped Jacques Chirac to power into his own personal fiefdom among the rank and file, especially the young.
As for the other would-be pretenders to his throne, they are a mere sideshow according to journalist and author Beatrice Gurrey.
"I think Michele Alliot-Marie wants to stand in order to make clear that she doesn't agree with the whole UMP manifesto. But the party - or almost all of it - is behind Sarkozy, and she can't win without the party."
Nicolas Sarkozy is not only a controversial figure among his own colleagues but for the nation as a whole. His tough stance on law and order during the riots appeared only to stoke the already burning flames in the deprived suburbs, where unemployment runs at up to 20%.
Commentators say Sarkozy is a mix of Chirac and Mitterrand
Yet he is not an ideologue, and appears happy to take ideas from both left and right.
The son of a Hungarian immigrant, he has overseen a popular clampdown on illegal immigration, but balanced that policy with a call for positive discrimination for minorities in France.
Some wonder whether he can win the hearts of the nation over the novelty and charms of France's first serious woman candidate.
Franz-Olivier Giesbert of Le Point magazine, a long-time observer of French politics, believes he can, although he warns it will be a tough contest against the popular Segolene Royal.
"Sarkozy is a mix of Chirac and Mitterrand," he believes. "He has the energy of Chirac - he loves meeting the people, just as Chirac does, he can talk for hours and hours.
"But in a way, he is like Mitterrand too, because he's very emotional, sensitive, and very strong-tempered, too."
At the age of 51, a mere spring chicken by French political standards, Nicolas Sarkozy appears to have successfully out-manoeuvred Mr Chirac, who was once said to want to block his candidacy at all costs.
This ruthless operator has most of the UMP faithful singing to his tune - but the campaign ahead to win over a deeply divided nation could prove the hardest fight of Nicolas Sarkozy's long political career.