The Ides Of September

Forget the Olympics. A country like France prefers a more dramatic tale, ripe with flawed characters and complex moral questions. From the beaches of Normandy to the Cote d'Azur, French vacationers have been transfixed by a real-life tale whose plotline features an outcast prodigal son arising to challenge his aging former mentor, the most powerful man in the nation. "It's the serial of the summer," says Carole Barjon of the Nouvel Observateur.

"It" is the political struggle within France's ruling party--and it looks set to erupt in full flower in September. At stake: the battle lines for the 2007 French presidential election. At the beginning of the month, Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to announce that he will run in November for the leadership of Union Pour un Mouvement Populaire, the political movement of Jacques Chirac. The president has already told his ambitious minister to stuff it. Ministers can't wear two hats. "If this or that minister is elected president of the UMP," the president declared rather heavily on Bastille Day, "he will quit immediately--or I will put an end to his duties." Bad blood runs notoriously deep between the two men. But Chirac meant only that he'd fire Sarkozy.

There's more to this tale. Sarkozy wants the leadership so that he can position the party--currently controlled by Chirac loyalists--behind his own drive for the presidency three years from now. Whether that's important enough to sacrifice his cabinet job--and whether Chirac would make good on this threat to ax his most popular minister--remains to be seen. But Chirac is playing a hardball game of his own. Rumors are rife that he will sooner or later drop his hugely unpopular prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, and possibly replace him with his preferred successor to the presidency, Dominique de Villepin. The swashbuckling Gaullist, foreign minister during France's strident opposition to the Iraq war, is currently biding his time as Interior minister.

Part of what makes this particular chapter of French politics so absorbing is its history. Ironically enough, the hated Sarkozy was once Chirac's right-hand man--until he jumped ship to support a conservative rival in the 1995 presidential election. When Chirac won, Sarkozy was unsurprisingly banished from the presidential palace. Yet years later, which Chirac intimate persuasively argued for the prodigal's return? None other than Villepin, who got the capable Sarkozy appointed as French Justice minister. For the erstwhile black sheep, it has been a meteoric ascent ever since. Cracking down on petty crime and taking on high-profile issues from anti-Semitism to immigration and Muslim integration, Sarkozy became the darling of the French right. He's the most popular politician in his party, with approval ratings today around 60 percent, compared with Chirac's 49 percent.

Perhaps success went to his head. Or sheer ambition. Soon Sarkozy was talking about his own aspirations to the presidency--setting Chirac's alarms ajangle once again. In late 2002 the president appointed him Finance minister, perhaps thinking that the country's lackluster economy would dim Sarkozy's political light. But no. Instead he has thrived and now is obviously eying his next move. While Chirac vacationed in the Indian Ocean in August, Sarkozy spent the holidays networking in southern France and pumping up party activists. "I know exactly what I want to do," he told the magazine Paris Match days after Chirac issued his edict, "and I know the price to be paid. My ambitions are no mystery." To which Villepin replied, via Le Monde: "I will regret his departure from the government, in accordance with the rule set by the President of the Republic."

And so the stage is set. Chirac-Villepin vs. Sarkozy, with the hapless Raffarin and his government left wondering what their fate will be. Its prospective bloodiness gives the melee something of the feel of an American-style hostile corporate takeover. But in fact, Sarkozy's bid for the party leadership shouldn't be difficult. Eighty-five percent of its members cite the energetic Sarkozy as the person they want, according to a recent survey. (Just 3 percent mentioned Raffarin.) Considering that the UMP has performed terribly in regional and European elections this year, that's hardly surprising. Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a party deputy and also a candidate for its leadership, describes the party's November ballot as "practically a primary for 2007."

Still, two and a half years is an eternity in politics, especially with notoriously fickle French voters. As Finance minister, Sarkozy is in a position to demonstrate his dedication to the public good. Not for nothing has he pushed to identify himself with such "election critical" issues as improving economic growth--which has recently surged to a projected 2.4 percent for 2004, likely the best in continental Europe--and reining in government spending. Playing politics within the comparatively obscure precincts of the UMP, far from the public eye, could thus prove dangerous, especially if Chirac's countermove were to elevate his rival Villepin to the prime minister's job.

Perhaps that's why Sarkozy has hedged. After initially promising to declare his intentions in August, he put the decision off until the first week in September. His game, it seems, is to try to negotiate with Chirac (through presidential intermediaries) a way to retain his Finance portfolio. Their answer: remain in the government, but forget the Union presidency. Meanwhile, not knowing which way is up or down, Raffarin has arranged a political emergency exit--announcing that he will seek a seat in Senate elections on Sept. 26.

For Chirac, this is all most unpleasant. France could easily end up with a president opposed by his party's leader throughout the remaining half of his term. That could divide and potentially gridlock government--at a time of massive public deficits and 10 percent unemployment--and possibly help return the opposition Socialists to power in 2007. Open warfare on the right? "It would be surreal," says Barjon of the Nouvel Observateur, pausing a moment before adding: "It already is." Beware the ides of September.