PARIS, Nov. 28 -- France's energetic and outspoken finance minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, took over the leadership of the country's ruling party Sunday, giving him a vehicle and platform to launch a presidential campaign in 2007 and setting up what is likely to be two years of intense political combat with the incumbent president, Jacques Chirac.
Chirac, who turns 72 on Monday, has hinted that he might run for a third term, but Sarkozy, 49, has spoken out loudly -- some say impolitely -- about the need for a younger generation of leaders to take charge and implement economic and societal reforms. Chirac had initially tried to block Sarkozy's ascent to the helm of the ruling party, the Union for a Popular Movement, but on Sunday he warmly congratulated his younger rival.
French Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy was surrounded by reporters as he left his last cabinet meeting on Wednesday. As the new party chief, Sarkozy must resign his cabinet post.
(Remy De La Mauviniere -- AP)
Sarkozy was named the party's president at an American-style party convention complete with French tricolor flags, music and a giant video screen on which speakers were shown. The election was actually held a week ago, but the results were announced Sunday, showing Sarkozy the runaway winner with 85.1 percent of the votes cast. The tightly organized production, which some news media dubbed a "coronation," seemed set not only to showcase Sarkozy's status as France's most popular politician, but also to burnish his image as a modernizing politician willing to break with tradition.
Chirac did not attend but was represented by his wife, Bernadette Chirac, who rarely makes political appearances. Sarkozy offered her a kiss when receiving the election results and hugged his other main rival, the prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin.
Sarkozy's election to the party post means he will have to resign as finance minister on Monday, after just eight months on the job. Chirac -- in a bid to curb Sarkozy's rising popularity -- declared last summer that no cabinet member would be allowed to hold the party presidency. Without a high-profile government job, Sarkozy faces the challenge of keeping himself and his ideas in the news media for the two years before the presidential race begins in earnest, analysts said.
But staying in the headlines has not proved difficult for Sarkozy, as he has shown himself willing to tackle old orthodoxies and offer sometimes controversial solutions to some of the most vexing issues facing France and Europe. For example, with tensions now rising over Europe's Muslim communities and questions being raised about past integration policies, Sarkozy has proposed allowing state funding for mosques as a way to curb foreign financing of them. The idea, which would challenge France's strict separation of church and state, has been criticized by Chirac.
In his acceptance speech Sunday, Sarkozy showed no reluctance to embrace contentious positions. Among other things, he proposed a "profound reform" of France's 35-hour workweek, a centerpiece of the last Socialist government's economic policy. It is popular with workers, but businesses have decried it as too costly.
"I am ready to carry your energy, I am ready to embody your hopes," Sarkozy said. "I am ready because I know that deep inside, France no longer fears change, but is ready for it."
Sarkozy's rise to the top of France's largest political machine -- a party begun, under another name, by Chirac nearly 30 years ago -- is an unlikely success story for France, where most politicians come from the same elite social class and the same school, the Ecole Nationale d'Administration. Sarkozy is the son of a Hungarian immigrant father and a French mother with Jewish roots. Sarkozy also is a lawyer, not a professional administrator from the prestigious school.
His popularity soared after he became Chirac's interior minister in 2002 and he launched a crackdown on crime by borrowing from New York City's "zero tolerance" policy. He also earned plaudits from French Jews for being among the first to speak out forcefully against anti-Semitic attacks in France.