Nominated, Sarkozy stresses values of 'republican right'

Posted in Europe | 15-Jan-07 | Author: Elaine Sciolino| Source: International Herald Tribune

Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, center, singing the French national anthem next to the defense minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, and other party members.

In bold speech, presidential candidate sets vision for France

PARIS: 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 Royal.

"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.