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Sarkozy Gets the Backing of President
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French President Jacques Chirac endorsed fellow conservative Nicolas Sarkozy's presidential bid Wednesday despite a long-held rivalry, giving a boost to the candidate in a close and volatile race.

Chirac, in a terse televised speech, said it was "natural" that he would offer Sarkozy his vote and his backing. The president also announced that Sarkozy would quit as interior minister on Monday.

Sarkozy said he was "very touched" by Chirac's support. "It is important for me politically and also personally," the candidate said in a statement.

Sarkozy, who has held a narrow lead in the polls for months, has made breaking with the past and reform of the French economy that stagnated under Chirac main themes of his presidential campaign.

Chirac's backing, and the long-anticipated decision to quit the government, carried both benefits and risks for Sarkozy.

Leaving the Interior Ministry promises to deflate vociferous criticism from Sarkozy's presidential competitors that he was unfairly using his powerful and high-profile government post as pulpit from which to campaign.

Because the ministry organizes French elections, critics also claimed a conflict of interest in Sarkozy's case and argued that he blurred the lines between his candidacy and his ministerial prerogatives.

But the ministry, which oversees the police and domestic intelligence agencies, also provided Sarkozy with an enviable platform to prove his effectiveness on issues central to his campaign, particularly immigration and security.

His tough stance on those questions drew much criticism during his tenure, but boosted his support on the right.

In declaring his support, Chirac hailed Sarkozy's "work, his commitment and his results" at the Interior Ministry.

Sarkozy has sought not to come across as the president's anointed successor, to avoid being associated with Chirac's policy failures and often dismal approval ratings in his 12 years at the presidential Elysee Palace.

But Chirac still carries weight as outgoing head of state and a refusal by him to endorse Sarkozy would have been a blow for his candidacy, handing ammunition to his rivals.

Sarkozy said Chirac's support was of "primary political significance" because he "knows better than anybody the demands of the job" as president.

France votes on April 22, with a run-off on May 6 between the top two vote-getters. Chirac, 74, only announced this month that he would not seek re-election.

(China Daily via agencies, March 22, 2007)

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