Will Sulky Chirac Sabotage His Party?

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As next spring's presidential election approaches, the French political right looks set to maintain its tradition of fratricide. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, president of the governing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), has the support of a vocal majority among his party's parliamentarians, and his popularity among conservative voters dwarfs that of any other possible contenders on the right. But President Jacques Chirac doesn't like him. And as many slain rivals have learned, Chirac can be a deadly enemy.

Chirac has plenty of reasons to have an aversion to Sarkozy. The younger man turned on the president before the elections of 1995 and backed a rival, Edouard Balladur, who then faded as Chirac rebounded and won. Sarkozy preaches a "rupture" with France's recent past, over most of which Chirac has presided. Sarkozy even went to Washington in September to meet with George Bush and criticized the "sterile grandiloquence" of France's 2003 rejection of the invasion of Iraq — which marked the apogee of Chirac's now dimmed popularity.

But Chirac ought to have one compelling reason for at least tolerating Sarkozy: he is the only real hope Chirac's party has of beating the incandescent Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal. Still, the Chiraquiens appear poised to wage internecine war between now and the January 14 party conference where a candidate will be chosen — almost two months during which the Socialists will be mending their divisions and, they hope, broadening their appeal.

So far, the public attacks have been relatively subtle, but unmistakable. Having taken heat from the Socialists for eliminating "proximity policing," Sarkozy claimed beat cops in the troubled suburbs hadn't been effective. That's when Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, instead of backing his party colleague, thought it opportune to propose "tranquility police" — same thing, different name. Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, another Chiraquien, suggested at a UMP conference last week that "we shouldn't treat all youth like they're delinquents." An obvious enough truth, but a claque booed and whistled, seeing it as a hit on Sarkozy's tough law-and-order line from a woman who's signaled she's ready to go up against him for the nomination.

So a campaign of a thousand cuts is under way, and for what? Chirac doesn't want a "rupture" from his self-preserving balancing act between right and left, which has left French society in aspic for the last 11 years. Does he want to block Sarkozy badly enough to countenance a Socialist victory? The next two months should yield an answer. But no one should put it past him.