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Sunday, January 14, 2007

French conservatives to nominate Sarkozy

PARIS - When Nicolas Sarkozy clinches the French conservatives' presidential nomination Sunday in a big-budget, American-style bash, he will push this pivotal race for a discouraged nation into high gear.

The anointment lands the dogged, divisive interior minister just one step away from a job he's coveted for much of his life. The next three months may prove bruising for him and his Socialist rival Segolene Royal: Both must work hard to keep their parties united, and win over both moderates and extremes to come out on top.

Whoever wins, France's next president will herald a new era after 12 years under Jacques Chirac, who is unlikely to run for a third term.

Many voters are hoping their next leader will find new direction for a nation worried about its future in Europe and the world.

Sunday's $4.5 million convention for the conservative UMP party is aimed at giving Sarkozy momentum before the two-round election in April and May.

Tens of thousands of people poured into a conference center on Paris' southern edge as the party congress began, many brought in from around France in scores of buses and reserved high-speed trains.

Sarkozy's challenge will be to hold together conservatives, including Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and party founder Chirac, who have not announced their backing for Sarkozy's candidacy.

"I'll need — and France will need — everybody here," Sarkozy told cheering party members in brief early remarks.

Villepin, a Sarkozy rival who has refused to endorse a candidate because Chirac hasn't announced his future plans, made a brief, closely scripted appearance at the convention and shook Sarkozy's hand.

Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, has earned both kudos and vitriol for promising to cut cherished workplace protections, championing tough police tactics in hardscrabble housing projects and dispatching illegal immigrants back to Africa and elsewhere.

Sarkozy says he's trying to snap France out of its slump: He says the French are overtaxed, overburdened by government fees that crimp innovation, too resistant to speaking English and ill-prepared for globalization.

After a career of ups and downs and a falling out with one-time mentor Chirac, Sarkozy has in recent years won over or worn down most Chirac loyalists and ministers.

On Friday, Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie joined them, deciding to forego her own candidacy to back Sarkozy. Sarkozy welcomed her decision and promised her a prominent place in the campaign.

Still, his bald ambition has alienated many.

UMP lawmaker Nicolas Dupont-Aignan sounded a dissonant note on the eve of Sarkozy's consecration, announcing Saturday that he would quit the party.

"We can no longer express ourselves," he said.

That highlights the challenge Sarkozy will face in the months to come. Far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who came in a shock second place in 2002 presidential elections behind Chirac, is a real threat to Sarkozy's right flank.

Meanwhile, many French voters hover around the center and decide whom to vote for at the last minute, making them prey for both Sarkozy and Royal. Polls show the two with remarkably even support.

Royal is keeping far from Sarkozy's big bash Sunday, unveiling an oil press at a farm in her home region of Poitou-Charentes.
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