French Interior Minister Sails to Presidential Nomination
PARIS, Jan. 14 — France’s interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, overwhelmingly captured the governing party’s nomination for president on Sunday, pledging to enforce laws, respect tradition, restore morality to public life and make the French work longer and harder.
In an 80-minute acceptance speech in a conference hall packed with 80,000 cheering supporters, Mr. Sarkozy also struggled to shake his reputation as the country’s unforgiving and divisive enforcer of law and order, portraying himself as a man of compassion.
“I have understood that humanity is a strength, not a weakness,” Mr. Sarkozy said from a vast stage bearing the colors of the nation’s tricolor flag. “I have changed.”
He added, “I have known defeat, and I have had to overcome it, like millions of French people.”
But his message seemed aimed at wooing France’s right-wing voters, perhaps even more than those in the center or on the left who could potentially support his main rival, the Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal.
“My values are yours, those of the republican right,” the 51-year-old Mr. Sarkozy said. “These are the values of fairness, order, merit, work, responsibility.” He insisted, however, that he was “not a conservative,” and supported innovation and the struggle against injustice.
He evoked the classic images of French history, including the Crusades, the Enlightenment, the cathedrals and Joan of Arc, but said little that would appeal to France’s millions of Muslims.
Despite the French republican ideal that ignores religious and ethnic differences, Mr. Sarkozy broke with tradition by referring to the French as the “heirs of 2,000 years of Christianity.”
In a veiled reference to Muslims who resist the French model of integration, he said that it was unacceptable to “want to live in France without respecting and loving France” and learning the French language.
He said as president he would enforce French laws against polygamy and genital cutting.
Mr. Sarkozy contrasted what he called the “virtual republic” of his opponents to the “real republic” he wants to create. The virtual republic “practices widespread coddling, but leaves people to die on the sidewalks,” he said, and allows strikers too much power and makes excuses for delinquents. He said the real republic, by contrast, “creates jobs, builds houses, lets workers earn a living, gives poor children a chance” and “makes everyone respect the law.”
He also characterized France’s generous social benefits system 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.”
Mr. Sarkozy also referred to his own immigrant roots, calling himself a “little Frenchman of mixed blood.” Mr. Sarkozy’s father was a Hungarian-born aristocrat; his mother is half-Jewish.
The speech is certain to be pounced upon by Mr. Sarkozy’s political enemies for not being more conciliatory — toward France’s large Muslim community, immigrants, the troubled youth of France’s suburbs 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’Études 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.”
During a campaign event, Ms. Royal said she had no comment on Mr. Sarkozy’s nomination. But Julien Dray, the Socialist Party spokesman, said in a statement that Mr. Sarkozy’s speech was “extremely worrisome” for French citizens and reflected the return of “the violent French right.”
Mr. Sarkozy’s nomination was never in doubt, despite the absence of support for him from President Jacques Chirac and some other senior government officials.
Mr. Sarkozy, who is also the leader of Mr. Chirac’s center-right Union for a Popular Movement Party, controlled the party apparatus and was the only candidate running. He won 98.1 percent of the vote, with nearly 70 percent of the 330,000 registered members of the UMP, as the party is known, participating, primarily via the Internet.
Mr. Sarkozy’s tough talk and personal style contrast starkly with Ms. Royal’s approach.
In his speech, Mr. Sarkozy 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 Ms. Royal, by contrast, has embarked on a campaign of engaging in a perpetual grass-roots conversation with the French people, in which the main goal seems to be to listen to their woes.
Mr. Sarkozy’s political triumph on Sunday was undercut by an ugly rift within his party that threatened to rob him of crucial support against both Ms. Royal and the far-right National Front in the election this spring.
Mr. Chirac and Mr. Sarkozy have made no secret of their distrust and dislike of each other. Some Sarkozy supporters are convinced that Mr. Chirac will play the role of spoiler and do what he can to prevent a Sarkozy presidency.
Last week, Mr. Chirac, who is 74 and has been in office for 12 years, said that he had not ruled out running for an unprecedented third term as an independent. He did not appear at Mr. Sarkozy’s nomination on Sunday.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, and the president of the National Assembly, Jean-Louis Debré, both Chirac loyalists, have thus far withheld backing for Mr. Sarkozy’s candidacy.
But Mr. Sarkozy has won important party backing from two former prime ministers under Mr. Chirac, Alain Juppé and Jean-Pierre Raffarin. On Friday, Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, who had thought of running for president herself, threw her support behind Mr. Sarkozy.
The IFOP polling institute reported a week ago that 81 percent of French voters said that they did not want Mr. Chirac to run 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 Mr. Sarkozy is the only candidate capable of beating Ms. Royal. An IPSOS opinion poll released last 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 Mr. Chirac, Mr. Sarkozy in his speech praised him for opposing the American-led war in Iraq, a position that is supported by a vast majority of the French.
“I want to pay homage to Jacques Chirac, who honored France when he opposed the war in Iraq, which was a mistake,” said Mr. Sarkozy, who has often been accused of being too pro-American.
Mr. Sarkozy intends to continue working as Mr. Chirac’s interior minister, essentially the third most important official after the president and the prime minister.
As for dominiquelechic, just watch what you do with that "little Frenchman" remark of his, okay? Michèle's decision gives him a nice comeback.