By Elaine Sciolino
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Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, center, singing the French national anthem
next to the defense minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, and other party
members. (Dominique Faget/AFP)
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy overwhelmingly captured the
presidential nomination of France’s governing party Sunday, pledging to
reform the country, enforce respect of French laws and traditions and
make the French work longer and harder.
In an 80-minute acceptance speech in a conference hall packed with
80,000 cheering supporters, Sarkozy also struggled to shake his
reputation as the country’s unforgiving law-and-order enforcer of
security, portraying himself as a man of compassion who had changed.
"I have understood that humanity is a strength, not a weakness. I
have changed," Sarkozy said from an immense stage bearing the colors of
the national tricolor flag. He added, "I have known defeat, and I have
had to overcome it, like millions of French people."
But his core message seemed aimed at wooing France’s right-wing
voters rather than those in the center or on the left who potentially
could support his main rival, the Socialist party candidate, Ségolène
"My values are yours, those of the republican right," Sarkozy said.
"These are the values of fairness, order, merit, work, responsibility.
I accept them. But in these values in which I believe, there is also
movement. I am not a conservative. I do not want an immobile France. I
want innovation, creativity, the struggle against injustices."
Despite the French republican ideal that ignores religious and
ethnic differences, for example, Sarkozy broke with tradition by
referring to the French as the "heirs of 2000 years of Christianity."
He said that Turkey "does not have its place" as a member of the European Union.
In a veiled reference to those Muslims and immigrants who resist the
French model of integration, he said it was unacceptable to "want to
live in France without respecting and loving France," and learning the
French language. He added, "If you live in France then you respect the
laws and values of the Republic."
He said that as president he would enforce French laws against polygamy and female circumcision.
He characterized France’s generous social services safety net as in
crisis because people do not work long and hard enough. "The problem is
that France works less when others work more," he said, adding, "You
have to love labor and not hate it."
As for immigration, he said that no member country of the European
Union should be allowed unilaterally to "massively regularize its
illegal immigrants" without consulting with other EU members.
Sarkozy also referred to his own immigrant roots, calling himself a
"little Frenchman of mixed blood." The father of Sarkozy is
Hungarian-born, and one of his grandfathers was Jewish.
The speech is excepted to be criticized by Sarkozy’s opponents for
not being more conciliatory — toward France’s large Muslim community,
immigrants and workers, for example.
"It was a very ideological, confrontational performance designed to
seduce the right," said Dominique Reynié, a professor of political
science at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris. "He was much more
to the right than Chirac or Giscard or Pompidou ever were. His
aggressive positions can only create more divisions in our country."
The outcome of Sarkozy’s nomination was never in doubt, despite the
absence of support for Sarkozy from President Jacques Chirac and some
other senior government officials.
The 51-year-old Sarkozy, who is also the leader of Chirac’s
center-right Popular Movement party, controlled the party apparatus and
was the only candidate running. He won 98.1 percent of the vote, with
the participation of nearly 70 percent of the 229,000 members of the
UMP, as the Union for a Popular Movement party is known.
Sarkozy’s tough talk and formal style contrasted starkly with the
much more informal performance by Royal when she was nominated by her
party in November.
In his speech, he veered between personal confessions about having
to overcome setbacks in life and shrill lecturing, even shouting, as he
chopped the air with upraised arms and pointed his fingers at his
audience to drive home his message.
The ever-smiling Royal, by contrast, has embarked on a campaign
strategy of engaging in a perpetual grass-roots conversation with the
French people, in which the main goal is to listen.
Sarkozy’s political triumph on Sunday is undercut by an ugly rift
within his party that threatens to rob him of crucial support against
both Royal, and the far-right National Front in the presidential
election this spring.
Chirac and Sarkozy have made no secret of their distrust and dislike
of each other, and some Sarkozy supporters and political analysts are
convinced that Chirac will play the role of spoiler and do whatever he
must to prevent a Sarkozy presidency.
Last week, Chirac, who is 74 and has been in office for 12 years,
said that he had not ruled out running for a third term as an
independent, even though he enjoys little support from his own
electorate. He did not appear at Sarkozy’s nomination.
The president has never forgiven Sarkozy’s decision to support a rival, Edouard Balladur, in the 1995 residential election.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, and the president of France’s
National Assembly, Jean-Louis Debré , both Chirac loyalists, thus far
have withheld backing for Sarkozy’s candidacy.
But Sarkozy has won important party backing from two former prime
ministers under Chirac, Alain Juppé and Jean- Pierre Raffarin. Last
Friday, Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, who had thought of
running for president herself, threw her support behind Sarkozy.
In an IFOP poll published a week ago, 81 percent of French voters
said that they did not want Chirac to stand for re-election,
highlighting popular concerns that such a race could divide the
center-right vote in the first election round in April.
Consecutive polls indicate that Sarkozy is the only candidate
capable of beating Royal. An IPSOS opinion poll released this week put
the two candidates in a dead heat if they were to face off in a second
round of voting in May.
Despite his rocky relationship with Chirac, Sarkozy in his speech
praised him for opposing the American-led war in Iraq, a position that
is supported by the vast majority of the French.
"I want to pay homage to Jacques Chirac, who honored France when he
opposed to the war in Iraq, which was a mistake," said Sarkozy, who
often has been accused of being too pro-American.
At the moment, Sarkozy intends to continue working as Chirac’s
interior minister — essentially remaining the third most important
official in government after the president and the prime minister.
The arrangement may seem strange, but it is not unprecedented in
French politics. Lionel Jospin, the Socialist who "cohabitated" as
prime minister with President Chirac between 1997 and 2002, for
example, stayed in his post when the two men ran against each other
during the 2002 presidential campaign.
Ariane Bernard contributed reporting to this article.