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Chirac's ambitious protege 'Sarko'

From Jim Bittermann
CNN Senior Correspondent

Sarkozy is known for his combative style and his "can-do" approach.
Nicolas Sarkozy
Jacques Chirac

(CNN) -- The show looked like a presidential rally, and some in the hall believed it was, but Nicolas Sarkozy, the ambitious, and hyper kinetic follower of Jacques Chirac, had, in principle, simply come to accept the leadership of Chirac's political party.

But in reality, at the meeting dubbed the "Sarko show," Sarkozy became the French president's rival in chief when he won a ballot to become head of the Union for a Popular Movement.

The weekend rally of the party faithful, which reportedly cost 7 million euros ($9.28m) was just the latest and most complicated episode in a political love-hate relationship that has kept political oracles here intrigued for years.

Chirac has been Sarkozy's confident and mentor. He drew the son of Hungarian immigrants into his private circle twenty years ago, at times, promoting his career by appointing him to high office.

But Sarkozy backed the wrong candidate, Eduard Balladur, Chirac's competitor in the 1995 presidential contest, and insiders say the president refused to speak to his disciple for the next three years.

Still Sarkozy's ambition to walk through the presidential palace gates and call it home, was not to be denied. And Chirac recognized his junior's popularity and drive.

Chirac made him the interior minister, a position some thought was a poisoned chalice, especially because of touchy issues like relations with France's large Muslim community.

But Sarkozy went from strength to strength, even succeeding at organizing a joint Islamic council for the first time.

"He is very convincing when he talks with you, he convinces you. That's his talent. That's why people believe in him," said Anita Hauser, a political editor at LCI-TV.

Analysts say that behind the palace gates, it is impossible to say exactly what relationship Sarkozy has with the president these days.

They were smiling when they parted just over a week ago.

But the two definitely differ. Sarkozy, who was elected party leader with more than 85 percent of the vote, has great appeal among young people and his remarks emphasized change and the need to modernize France.

Despite his clear intention of becoming France's next president, Sarkozy has stopped short of saying he will directly confront Chirac for the job.

But between now and the elections in 2007 it seems certain the party Chirac created, will divide between his followers and those who support his protege.

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