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Last Updated: Sunday, 14 January 2007, 13:21 GMT
French right look to 'Emperor Nicolas'
France's governing party the UMP has chosen its candidate for the presidential elections in April - the French interior minister.

The BBC's Paris correspondent, Caroline Wyatt, says his main appeal for the party is that he is popular enough to take on the Socialist candidate, Ségolene Royal.

"Many believe that, like his hero Napoleon, Mr Sarkozy may accidentally over-reach himself"

On Sunday Nicolas Paul Stephane Sarkozy de Nagy-Bocsa - more commonly known as Nicolas Sarkozy - was crowned the centre-right candidate for the French presidency.

He was surrounded by cheering acolytes at a party conference in which nothing was left to chance, from the lighting and camera angles to the length of the standing ovation.

The word coronation is not mine. It is being used across the French media - a "sacre", with all its echoes of that most famous French coronation of all, the Emperor Napoleon's in Paris in 1804.

At the Louvre, the most famous painting of that grand occasion depicts a short man in his finery, all eyes upon him, surrounded by his family and adoring supporters.

Even the Pope was there.

Sarkozy was not born into privilege but has fought every inch of the way on the long road to his coronation

Napoleon wanted to consolidate his position and display his power to the people - to his enemies as much as to his allies.

Appetite for power

Once again, all eyes in France are drawn to a short, dark-haired man, an outsider with a ferocious will to succeed and a boundless appetite for power.

Like the Emperor, Sarkozy was not born into privilege but has fought every inch of the way on the long road to his coronation. Just four months and the vagaries of fate separate him from the Elysee Palace but, if he fails, it will not be for want of trying.

French cartoon featuring Nicolas Sarkozy
Cartoonists love Sarkozy's arched eyebrows and Dracula hairline

Napoleon contented himself with a mere 10,000 guests at Notre Dame Cathedral. Mr Sarkozy invited 50,000 to a conference hall at the Porte de Versailles.

He also offered a Sarko-themed range of T-shirts and mugs to his fans, an option not available to the emperor.

Anyone who is anyone on the French centre-right attended, or at least anyone who wants a job in a Sarkozy cabinet.

That does not include President Chirac, his one-time mentor turned bitter rival, who threatens to stand against his former protégé as an independent, huffily refusing to stand aside for the man he feels betrayed him personally and politically.

Yet the grandeur of the event has sown unease in France, reinforcing Sarko's role as a hate figure in the mainly left-wing French media.

Cartoonists love his arched eyebrows and Dracula hairline which, with a skilled pen, becomes the quiff of the devil.

The last time I stood next to Nicolas Sarkozy at a party conference, it was hard to look at him without the cartoon image super-imposing itself.

Youth appeal

He exudes a hyperactive energy, like a mini human whirlwind. Wherever he was - and he seemed to be everywhere - a crowd would gather, desperate to see him close-up.

Love him or hate him, the UMP leader undoubtedly has star quality.

For his youthful supporters, it was not the party that mattered. This was personal.

"Ni-co-las! Ni-co-las!" was the constant chant.

"What does your slogan, 'Imagine France afterwards', actually mean?" I shout out at an impromptu press conference.

He looks at me, arches one eyebrow and smiles.

"I'll tell you afterwards."

The crowd laughs, although I am left none the wiser.

Love him or hate him, though, the UMP leader undoubtedly has star quality, the charisma that only power brings, and the successful leader's ability to make those he talks to feel special, if only for a moment.

It was a quality much on display as the party leader signed copies of his book "Testimony" which is part biography, part manifesto.

As he tirelessly dedicated copy after copy to young François or Amélie, hundreds of young French conservatives waited abuzz with excitement, as teenagers might at a rock concert.

One young man ran up to me still shaking, ecstatically clutching his signed copy.

"Did you see? He shook my hand! He talked to me! He's amazing. Only he can save France."

Fire and brimstone

Nicolas Sarkozy is asked to sign a book
Nicolas Sarkozy describes himself as a candidate or reform and unity

As a political performer, Sarkozy is impressive.

Listening to him speak at the podium, the small intense man suddenly becomes a big, booming presence, his image on the TV screen behind him ten times larger than life, hands pounding the lectern, forefinger pointing accusingly as he blames his own government for France's ills.

Sweat trickles down his face as he rams home his message with all the passion of a fire-and-brimstone preacher whose mission is to bring France back to the path of righteousness from its sinful, slothful ways.

He speaks simply and directly of the need to value hard work, for France to earn its own keep, rather than burden the next generation with an unaffordable bill.

There are mutterings in France that this weekend's coronation was a misjudgement, a deeply un-French display of hubris.

Some go further, suggesting that the last time anyone staged such a rally for a leader was in Germany in the 1930s.

That is a little far-fetched but many do believe that, like his hero Napoleon, Mr Sarkozy may accidentally over-reach himself, fighting too many battles on too many fronts, and could either savour the ultimate victory this May or face his Waterloo.

From Our Own Correspondent was originally broadcast on Saturday, 13 January, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Country profile: France
02 Apr 06 |  Country profiles

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