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Chirac rival Sarkozy gets French party boost
Updated: 2004-11-29 09:50

France's political scene changed dramatically when Nicolas Sarkozy, the ambitious finance minister, was formally named the new leader of the ruling conservative party -- widely seen as the start of his march to replace Jacques Chirac as French president in 2007.

In a televised acceptance speech before 40,000 members of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) outside Paris, Sarkozy vowed to use his new job to shake up France with reform and hinted that the Chirac era was drawing to a close.

"A new horizon is in front of us, it is now that we must make our dreams a reality," he said over cheers and the waving of the French and party flags.

The party leadership, which will require Sarkozy to give up his government portfolio, is considered a springboard for the presidential elections in two and a half years' time that Chirac may or may not contest.

French media called the moment a "coronation" in reference to the spectacle and to the aspirations of 49-year-old Sarkozy, who is easily the country's most popular politician.

Sarkozy won 85 percent of the ballots cast by half of the UMP's 120,000 members, according to results flashed up on screens in the vast tradeshow hall in a setting reminiscent of glitzy US party conventions.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin were among the ministers in the crowd.

Chirac, though, was not present and sent his wife Bernadette instead.

Sarkozy read a message from Chirac that said the president counted on the new UMP leader being "faithful" to the party's charter and "to the spirit of the institutions" of France which he represents.

Sarkozy prefaced his speech by paying homage to several influential party figures.

"Madam, I thank you for your presence," he told Bernadette Chirac, adding: "I need you, Mrs Chirac."

But he also hinted at the mutual animosity with the president by talking about the immobilism France has often been accused of, and pointedly showed he intended to use his new post to make policy statements that infringe on Chirac's areas of responsibility.

In a declaration that ran directly counter to Chirac's own stated position, he notably said: "I want Turkey to be associated with Europe but not integrated into the European Union."

That issue has proved divisive in the party over recent months and could result in an embarrassing climbdown for Chirac, who has supported eventual Turkish EU membership.

The moment was payback for Chirac's strategy against Sarkozy, which involved shuffling the younger politician around the government in a vain bid to sap his rising popularity and then demanded he give up his ministerial post to become UMP chief.

Chirac's own preferred successor, former prime minister Alain Juppe, was this year forced to give up the UMP leadership after being convicted of illegal party financing, handing a golden opportunity toSarkozy.

During his two and a half years in government, first as interior minister then as finance minister, the man who has been dubbed "Sarko" embarked on a campaign of reforms that critics say were more designed to keep his profile high than to advance any guiding principles.

He has been called, semi-derisively, "Mr America" for courting maximum media exposure while cracking down first on crime and then the country's deficit.

But he has also brandished protectionist credentials, ensuring that French companies did not fall under foreign control and getting French supermarket chains to cut prices.

That blend of opportunism and populism recalls Chirac's own style, although the diminutive Sarkozy is perceived as brasher than the current president.

Chirac, now the elder statesman of European politics, turns 72 on Monday, the same day Sarkozy is expected to hand in his resignation as finance minister. He has not said whether he will stand for a third term in 2007.

De Villepin, the handsome and erudite aristocrat who shot to international fame for his speeches while foreign minister against the US war on Iraq, may be tapped by Chirac as a last-ditch attempt to hobble Sarkozy, perhaps by becoming prime minister.

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