PARIS -- Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy accepted the presidential nomination of the ruling center-right party yesterday, promising to break with the past and setting up a high-stakes campaign that is likely to open a new era in French politics.
The overwhelming vote by the members of the Union for a Popular Movement culminated a drive by Sarkozy that overcame an intraparty rift with an old guard loyal to President Jacques Chirac, 73, who has been in office since 1995.
Although Sarkozy's plain-spoken, hard-charging, crime-fighter image has made him one of France's most popular leaders, he faces a tough challenge from Segolene Royal, a Socialist Party newcomer making an energetic bid to become the nation's first female president.
During his acceptance speech at the UMP convention yesterday, Sarkozy, the 51-year-old chief of the party, repeated his longtime promise to be a pioneer who breaks with economic stagnation, political malaise and an aloof elite.
"I am not a conservative," he said. "I want movement, innovation, creativity. ... My France is that of those who vote for the extremes, not because they share their beliefs, but because they despair to be heard. Today I want to ask them to get back on the path of the republic. My France is that of those who don't believe any more in politics because politics lied to them so often."
With Sarkozy as a candidate, the race for the April elections shapes up as a close battle among charismatic heavyweights presenting themselves to a disillusioned electorate as outsiders. Recent years have been marked by unemployment, low economic growth, nationwide riots in immigrant slums, and a pervasive sense that France is adrift and unable to change.
In addition to Royal, Sarkozy has to worry about foes on the right. Jean-Marie Le Pen of the far-right National Front, who startled the French by reaching the presidential runoff in 2002, is again running. Le Pen's proven potential to win as much as 20 percent of the vote has spurred Sarkozy to reinforce hard-line positions on immigration and crime. Sarkozy's pugnacious rhetoric has alienated some voters, although he also endorses measures such as affirmative action and permitting immigrants to vote in municipal elections.
Moreover, Chirac and a core of loyalists led by Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin have been a constant thorn in Sarkozy's side. They resent his blunt statements that France must move away from excessively state-driven policies and closer to the "Anglo-Saxon" model. They also resent him because he is more pro-American and pro-Israeli than most French leaders, criticizing him last year for visiting in the United States with President Bush, who is very unpopular here.
Chirac last week refused to rule out the possibility that he might seek a third term, although polls show that 80 percent of voters do not want him to run and see him as out of touch. One well-placed government insider recently said he believed that Chirac despised Sarkozy, a former protege, so much that he would prefer a Socialist victory. Chirac has until mid-March to decide on a long-shot re-election bid.
In a display of the Chirac camp's lack of enthusiasm for the candidate, Villepin made a cameo appearance at yesterday's convention but left before Sarkozy spoke. Chirac did not attend or send a message.
Sebastian Rotella writes for the Los Angeles Times.