When President Jacques Chirac sat down this week for his annual televised news conference marking Bastille Day, the comments that attracted the most attention were aimed at one of his cabinet members, Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. "I make the decisions and he executes them," Chirac declared bluntly.
That remark was among the most cutting yet in a test of nerves between the 71-year-old president and an upstart young rival that each day seems to become more sharp and personal. While Chirac battles declining poll numbers and a sense of drift after nine years in power, the charismatic Sarkozy has become the most popular member of his government, and he has spoken openly, some say brashly, of his desire to succeed Chirac as president in 2007.
Sarkozy in many ways is everything Chirac is not. At 49, he comes from a different generation. He has acquired a reputation as a man of action -- "Super Sarko," the media call him -- who speaks his mind on controversial issues, while Chirac is often seen as reigning more than ruling, speaking obtusely and saying little to offend.
While Chirac is a creature of the traditional French system, educated at the prestigious National School of Public Administration, Sarkozy is the son of a Hungarian who joined the Foreign Legion to gain French citizenship. Moreover, Sarkozy is unbridled about his desire to run for president -- a heresy in a country where tradition dictates that personal ambition never be flaunted.
When asked once in a television interview whether he saw a potential president every morning in the mirror while shaving, he replied: "Not only while shaving."
During an official visit to China earlier this year, Sarkozy said he discussed with Chinese President Hu Jintao "what it's like to be number one, after spending years as number two." And in an obvious reference to Chirac, who became president in 1995, Sarkozy said presidents should step down after two terms "to make room for younger men." Chirac has kept open his option of running again in 2007 at age 75.
For years Chirac favored longtime ally Alain Juppe as his successor. But in January, Juppe was convicted of corruption in a 1990s Paris fundraising scandal and was barred from politics for 10 years. Lately, analysts say, Chirac is favoring Dominique de Villepin, who was foreign minister during the run-up to the Iraq war and now runs the Interior Ministry.
There was a time when Sarkozy was a favorite, which gives the rivalry a soap opera poignancy: an aging father figure pitted against an errant, impatient son. Many here say the president recognizes that Sarkozy is capable -- and too popular to be excluded from government.
Said one Sarkozy confidant, who spoke on condition he not be identified: "It's like a love-hate relationship. Chirac does not really trust Sarkozy. Sarkozy does not really trust Chirac. They know how each other operates." He added that "it's a very complex relationship. He's known Chirac since he was 18 -- that's 30 years."
Sarkozy has gained maximum publicity for himself, making headway on some of the most contentious issues in a country where bureaucratic paralysis is often the rule. "France isn't afraid of reforms," he said recently. "She doesn't fear change, she awaits it." He has managed to keep his poll numbers high, while Chirac and the prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, have been in political free fall.
In an apparent effort to block Sarkozy's surge, Chirac used his news conference to warn his rival not to reach too far, too fast. He said he would fire any minister who was elected head of the ruling party, a position Sarkozy wants.
Sarkozy, in a recent interview in Le Figaro newspaper, said it would be unjust not to let him both lead the party and serve as a minister. Other party leaders -- including Chirac -- have held government posts simultaneously, he said.
Sarkozy has posed several direct public challenges to Chirac on policy. He has advocated a cut in the defense budget and called for a lengthening of the 35-hour workweek. "I try to express my ideas without taboo . . . with only the preoccupation of finding a good solution and the best method," he said in a recent interview in Le Monde newspaper.
"What's going on is simply a war of succession," said a ruling party member of Parliament and onetime Chirac ally who is now backing Sarkozy. He asked not to be quoted by name so as not to get in the middle of the feud. "It's a generational change going on."
"Three years from now, in 2007, Chirac will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of his first ministerial job," the legislator said. "I think maybe only Fidel Castro has been around longer. It's about time something happened. His cronies in the palace, most of them are in their seventies."
"Our electorate is asking: Where is the change, where is the reform?" he said. "And Chirac is of that generation that believes France cannot be changed. We believe some severe change is needed."
A sampling of French opinion seems to underscore the view that change is needed and that Sarkozy would bring it. "I think Sarkozy is a great guy," said Alain Brunier, a businessman in the biomedical field. "He's very different from Chirac."
Of the president, he said, "People on the left hate him, and people on the right are tired of him." Brunier said Sarkozy "has some personal vision, and he gives the impression he believes in what he's doing. And he's young. He's like a Kennedy."
Chirac passed over Sarkozy to be prime minister in 2002, preferring the more loyal and low-key Raffarin. But Sarkozy was named interior minister, with heightened powers, at a time when the electorate was concerned about rising crime.
Sarkozy borrowed from former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's "zero tolerance" policy and began a police crackdown on even minor offenses. Prostitutes were cleared from major streets. He put police on patrol in tough neighborhoods. Sarkozy became a fixture on the television news, visiting the highest-crime areas, meeting with police officers, promising -- and delivering -- better weapons and equipment. The crime numbers dropped.
He entered the tough terrain of immigration, negotiating the closure of a controversial refugee camp at Sangatte on the English Channel. He became the first prominent French politician to call openly for a U.S.-style system of affirmative action to help better integrate France's 5 million to 6 million Muslims, many of them young North Africans in crime-infested suburbs.
At the same time, Sarkozy became the most forceful government voice condemning a surge in anti-Semitic attacks. Shimon Samuels, director of international relations for the Simon Wiesenthal Center here, said he had an early meeting with Sarkozy in which the minister pledged tough action against anti-Semitic crimes. Sarkozy later sent several police commissioners for training at the center's Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, he said.
"We feel this is a man who is certainly very sensitive when everyone else was in denial," Samuels said. "He really sensitized Chirac and his peers." Within three months of Sarkozy taking over, Samuels said he downgraded his group's travel advisory for Jews visiting France from "extreme caution" to "caution" if they wore overtly Jewish clothing and symbols.
Some have attributed Sarkozy's sensitivity to anti-Semitism to rumored Jewish ancestry in his Hungarian past. Samuels attributes it more simply to Sarkozy's background as someone who never quite fit into the system. "Maybe because he's an outsider, a maverick in a sense," Samuels said. "He came from a broken home, he's an immigrant."
Samuels offered one other anecdote about Sarkozy, from the mid-1990s, when Sarkozy was mayor of the posh Paris suburb of Neuilly. A 96-year-old Jewish woman in Haifa, Israel, whose family had been deported from France during World War II, was trying to get back the family house in Neuilly that had been appropriated by the Nazis. Sarkozy was living in the house.
After receiving a letter of inquiry, Sarkozy wrote back in 24 hours, saying simply that she should send him all the relevant documents and he would vacate the house within a week. In the end, there was no need to; the woman was so moved by Sarkozy's response, Samuels said, that she dropped the matter.
Earlier this year, Chirac moved Sarkozy to the finance job. Many analysts suggest the president believed it would be a "poison chalice" that could damage the younger man's standing because he would have to grapple with unpopular issues such as tightening the pension program and privatizing state industries.
He is also tasked with reviving sluggish growth, nudging down France's stubborn 10 percent unemployment rate and cutting the deficit to comply with European Union mandates. He is already facing opposition from some cabinet members. Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie publicly quarreled with Sarkozy over defense spending; Chirac weighed in to back her.
The public clearly expects results from "Super Sarko." A CSA poll in mid-May found that 72 percent of respondents considered Sarkozy "effective" and 79 percent called him "courageous."
When asked whether Sarkozy was "ambitious," about 89 percent answered yes.