The Ides of September; French Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy Heads for an Autumn Showdown in Paris

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Byline: Eric Pape and Tracy McNicoll

Forget the Olympics. A country like France prefers a more dramatic tale, ripe with flawed characters and complex moral questions. From the beaches of Normandy to the Cote d'Azur, French vacationers have been transfixed by a real-life tale whose plotline features an outcast prodigal son arising to challenge his aging former mentor, the most powerful man in the nation. "It's the serial of the summer," says Carole Barjon of the Nouvel Observateur.

"It" is the political struggle within France's ruling party--and it looks set to erupt in full flower in September. At stake: the battle lines for the 2007 French presidential election. At the beginning of the month, Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to announce that he will run in November for the leadership of Union Pour un Mouvement Populaire, the political movement of Jacques Chirac. The president has already told his ambitious minister to stuff it. Ministers can't wear two hats. "If this or that minister is elected president of the UMP," the president declared rather heavily on Bastille Day, "he will quit immediately--or I will put an end to his duties." Bad blood runs notoriously deep between the two men. But Chirac meant only that he'd fire Sarkozy.

There's more to this tale. Sarkozy wants the leadership so that he can position the party--currently controlled by Chirac loyalists--behind his own drive for the presidency three years from now. Whether that's important enough to sacrifice his cabinet job--and whether Chirac would make good on this threat to ax his most popular minister--remains to be seen. But Chirac is playing a hardball game of his own. Rumors are rife that he will sooner or later drop his hugely unpopular prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, and possibly replace him with his preferred successor to the presidency, Dominique de Villepin. The swashbuckling Gaullist, foreign minister during France's strident opposition to the Iraq war, is currently biding his time as Interior minister.

Part of what makes this particular chapter of French politics so absorbing is its history. Ironically enough, the hated Sarkozy was once Chirac's right-hand man--until he jumped ship to support a conservative rival in the 1995 presidential election. When Chirac won, Sarkozy was unsurprisingly banished from the presidential palace. Yet years later, which Chirac intimate persuasively argued for the prodigal's return? None other than Villepin, who got the capable Sarkozy appointed as French Justice minister. For the erstwhile black sheep, it has been a meteoric ascent ever since. Cracking down on petty crime and taking on high-profile issues from anti-Semitism to immigration and Muslim integration, Sarkozy became the darling of the French right. He's the most popular politician in his party, with approval ratings today around 60 percent, compared with Chirac's 49 percent.

Perhaps success went to his head. Or sheer ambition. Soon Sarkozy was talking about his own aspirations to the presidency--setting Chirac's alarms ajangle once again. In late 2002 the president appointed him Finance minister, perhaps thinking that the country's lackluster economy would dim Sarkozy's political light. …