French Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has taken one step closer to a bid for the presidency, taking the helm of President Jacques Chirac's party.
In a multimillion-dollar, American-style political show, Sarkozy on Sunday was named president of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), kicking off a new era for Chirac's right.
That could prove fatal to the president if he should want to bid for a third term. Chirac turned 72 yesterday, while Sarkozy, who stepped down as finance minister yesterday, is 49.
At least 15,000 UMP members packed the hall of Le Bourget airport northeast of Paris for the party's changing of the guard. Thousands of others followed the proceedings on screens from adjoining areas. The press compared the spectacle, featuring show-biz stars, to the crowning of a king.
In an address to the crowd, Sarkozy, elected for a three-year term, said he will work so that UMP is the source of a rebirth for the "essential values" of France -- respect, work and country.
UMP, created in 2002 in an alliance of Chirac's conservatives and some centrists, has been losing elections ever since. It replaced the traditional conservative Rally for the Republic, a neo-Gaullist party created by Chirac.
Sarkozy made clear that, in giving the party new momentum, he wants to do away with the status quo, which he called "our adversary."
"I want to remain a free man," Sarkozy said. "Things are going to change," he added later. "We will not disappoint."
However, Chirac sent a warning in a message to the party, insisting that the "union" between conservatives and centrists upon which the UMP was founded must be preserved.
"Today, you are the vigilant guardians," Chirac said in the message read out quickly by Sarkozy. "Nothing, ever, must put this [union] into question."
Chirac said he counted on the "vitality, efficiency, commitment of Nicolas Sarkozy" in his new job.
Sarkozy, once part of Chirac's inner circle, betrayed the president by backing Edouard Balladur for president in 1995 rather than the winner Chirac. He retreated for seven years from the political scene to be brought back in 2002 as interior minister.
Energetic, quick-witted and frank, Sarkozy is said to have wanted the prime minister's job, but he quickly moved to center-stage with a law-and-order program against delinquents and bold moves to bring France's huge Muslim population into the mainstream.
Sarkozy took a deep jab at the 35-hour work week put in place by the former Socialist government, saying he wants a "profound reform" of the law. Work must be "rehabilitated" and "the France of work" must be "at the heart of all politics," he said.
"We must invent and symbolize a French model of success inspired by no other model but [able] to inspire others," he said.
Neither skin color nor social origins should stand in the way of success, he added.
Sarkozy outlined a project to make the UMP a truly popular party, saying he will spend three days a month in various French regions, meeting farmers, factory workers and civil servants and encouraging the party's youth movement to connect with high schools.
"Together, we will develop the great popular movement you have dreamed of," Sarkozy said. "A new horizon is before us."
Speaking like a statesman, Sarkozy also addressed international concerns, lauding former communist-era leaders of eastern Europe like Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel for making "liberty triumph" -- and getting heavy applause for also praising Pope John Paul II.