Popular former French finance and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has taken over the leadership of his country's conservative ruling party in a move that could change the face of French politics. Europe Correspondent Roger Wilkison reports Mr. Sarkozy makes no secret of his ambition to succeed his onetime mentor President Jacques Chirac, and seeks to portray himself as a new kind of French conservative.
Jacques Chirac, who turned 72-years old this week, has been in politics for nearly four decades and, in his nearly 10 years as president, has come to personify France.
His independent foreign policy, based on projecting a French-led European Union as a counterweight to the United States, has irritated the Bush administration, but generally gained the backing of his fellow citizens.
Even though he is a conservative, he has done little to loosen the government's traditionally heavy hand on the economy, despite high unemployment and indications that in the future the French will be paying a lot more for their excellent schools, high-speed trains, and nuclear-power plants.
Forty-nine-year-old Nicolas Sarkozy represents another France, a France that, in his words, cannot remain immobile. He says he wants France to become a country in which hard work and achievement are rewarded, in which new wealth is created to keep financing the welfare state. And he wants France to reach out to its immigrants, especially young Muslims alienated by a society that does not wholly accept them.
The son of a Hungarian immigrant, Mr. Sarkozy was once a prot??of Mr. Chirac, but fell out with his mentor when he backed a Chirac rival for the presidency in 1995. After several years as a political outsider he was named interior minister, a post from which he launched a high-profile crackdown on crime that garnered him widespread public support. He was then moved to the finance ministry, where his popularity rose further after he negotiated price cuts at supermarket chains.
Though the conservative government has lost heavily in regional and European elections, Mr. Sarkozy remains popular. Professor Stefan Collignon of the London School of Economics' European Institute describes him as a new kind of French politician.
"Sarkozy has developed the skill of playing with the media, playing to public opinion. Quite often, his policies are even contradictory, not necessarily coherent. But he is talking to different groups by saying what they want to hear, so, in many ways he is much more a presidential candidate, as in the United States, than a traditional French politician."
Mr. Sarkozy has confessed to harboring presidential ambitions, and even though neither he nor President Chirac have said whether they will run in the 2007 election, professor Collignon says Mr. Sarkozy has already gained a power base as head of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement.
"Actually, the best post, in order to win the presidential election, is not to be prime minister but actually to be free of that and, as a party leader, Sarkozy has now exactly that position."
As President Chirac looks over his shoulder at his younger, more dynamic rival, Mr. Sarkozy promises to reconnect a disillusioned electorate with the political process. The political editor of France's LCI television network, Anita Hauser, says Mr. Sarkozy is especially popular among the young.
"He is very convincing. When he talks with you, he convinces you. That is his talent. That is why people believe in him."
Despite being a member of the same party as Mr. Chirac, Mr. Sarkozy has said he will speak his mind on issues on which he and the president disagree.
Mr. Chirac wants the European Union to open accession negotiations with Turkey, despite widespread opposition in France to Turkish membership of the bloc. Mr. Sarkozy, speaking at his lavish inauguration ceremony Sunday, took a different approach.
He says the European Union, which he describes as the most important political project of the second half of the 20th Century, cannot continue to expand indefinitely. He says that is why he wants Turkey to be associated with Europe, but not integrated into the European Union.
Mr. Sarkozy says France should remain a prime force in developing the European Union as a political entity and not just a free-trade area. In that regard he agrees with Mr. Chirac.
As Mr. Sarkozy prepares to challenge Mr. Chirac for the leadership of the French right, the French left is also divided.
On Wednesday, French Socialists are to vote on whether to back their deputy leader, Laurent Fabius, in rejecting the European Constitution in a referendum next year. If they do, their party could be torn in two and France might even vote against the constitution. Mr. Fabius, like Mr. Sarkozy, has tapped into rising popular sentiment that an enlarged Europe is drifting out of France's grasp.