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Sarkozy Named French Presidential Candidate
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France's Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, formally clinched the ruling conservatives' presidential nomination Sunday, pushing this pivotal election race for a discouraged nation into high gear.

The governing UMP party announced that Sarkozy had been endorsed by nearly 70 percent of registered party members in a vote. His was the only name on the list after he wore down or won over his potential rivals in recent months. Sarkozy now faces a tight race against the top contender on the left, Socialist Segolene Royal, for the elections in April and May.

Sarkozy thanked his supporters, saying: "I do not have the right to fail," in a speech before tens of thousands packed into a Paris conference hall. The anointment at a big-budget, American-style bash lands the dogged, divisive son of a Hungarian immigrant just one step away from a job he has coveted for much of his life.

The next three months may prove bruising for him and 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 and how to reach out to its unemployment-stricken blacks, Arabs and Muslims.

Sunday's 3.5-million-euro (US$4.5 million) convention for the conservative UMP party is aimed at giving Sarkozy momentum before the two-round election.

Tens of thousands of people packed a conference center on the southern edge of Paris for the party congress, many brought in from around France.

Challenging job

His 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 has not announced his future plans, made a brief, closely scripted appearance at the convention and shook Sarkozy's hand.

Other potential challengers to Sarkozy's candidacy have been tarnished by corruption scandals or government crises, or fell to Sarkozy's steamroller-like takeover of the party.

Some 69 percent of UMP members, or a total of 233,779 people, took part in the party vote, and 98 percent of them cast a ballot for Sarkozy. The others left their ballot blank as a protest vote.

Sarkozy has earned both kudos and vitriol for promising to cut cherished workplace protections, championing tough police tactics for tough housing projects and dispatching illegal immigrants back to Africa and elsewhere.

(China Daily via agencies January 15, 2007)


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