France: Chirac's Protégé Is No Poodle

French politics traditionally pits the country's left wing, supported by national labor unions, against the more business-friendly right wing. Not now. The real action is a struggle for control of France's ruling center-right -- and it's emerging as a key European political battle to watch.

Increasingly isolated within the Elysée Palace, 71-year-old President Jacques Chirac is facing an unprecedented challenge from his onetime protégé, Nicolas Sarkozy. The 49-year-old Finance Minister is not hiding his ambition to stop Chirac from running for a third term in 2007 and wants to run for the top job himself. "A year ago, nobody thought Sarkozy would be a credible presidential candidate," says Philippe Manière, executive director of l'Institut Montaigne, a Paris think tank. "Now he has gained complete credibility."

Although Chirac is a wily politician with more than one trick up his sleeve, many believe it will be difficult for him to keep the upper hand against Sarkozy. Voters seem increasingly disenchanted with the veteran politician, who first became Prime Minister in 1974. Chirac's conservative Union for a Popular Movement party took a drubbing in regional polls last March and in European Parliament elections in June. A further blow came in mid-July, when Chirac loyalist Alain Juppé stepped down as UMP chief six months after receiving a suspended sentence on corruption charges. Party rank and file are now likely to back Sarkozy if, as is likely, he makes a bid to head the UMP.

Control of the UMP would be vital to Sarkozy's goal of becoming the next center-right presidential candidate. If he succeeds, it would spell the end of the narrow-based gerontocracy that has dominated French political life for the last generation and could usher in real change. While Chirac has said that France's costly 35-hour week legislation cannot be repealed, Sarkozy has called for its "radical reform."

Signs of a Shift

Chirac's tireless effort to promote a Paris-Berlin political and economic axis has been relentlessly attacked by Sarkozy, who argues that France should look to more dynamic Britain, Spain, and the U.S. as models, rather than to slow-growth Germany. Sarkozy's rise could also be a harbinger of broader political shifts at the heart of "Old Europe." A similar process looks to be under way in Germany, where dissatisfaction with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's halfhearted reforms is boosting the prospects of victory in mid-2006 for center-right opposition leader Angela Merkel. She could take office even earlier if the center-left continues to get beat in regional elections. Like Sarkozy, who never attended the elite Ecole National d'Administration, Merkel is an outsider -- as a native East German and a woman.

Sarkozy does face challenges. As President, Chirac still can dismiss him at will. But such a move could backfire since Sarkozy is considered the government's most effective minister. Sarkozy's team thinks Chirac has little choice but to cut a deal anointing the younger politician as leader of France's center-right. The 2007 race may be a long way off, but the campaigning has begun -- and Sarkozy more than ever looks like the horse to watch.

By John Rossant in Paris

Edited by Rose Brady

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