As Nicolas Sarkozy's longtime quest to become French president heads into its final stretch, the combative interior minister faces the treacherous task of uniting fractious conservatives in a country desperate for change and anxious about competition from rising powers like China.
Sarkozy was consecrated on Sunday as the ruling party's presidential nominee, pitching him into a close battle against fellow front-runner Segolene Royal, a charismatic Socialist who would be France's first woman president. She too faces a test in uniting her camp for the two-round election in April and May.
Sarkozy's nomination was no surprise: He was the only person on the ballot for the UMP party's vote. But the formal anointment further sidelines President Jacques Chirac, the party's founder and one-time Sarkozy mentor.
The French are eager for new direction, and their next president will herald a new era after 12 years under Chirac, unpopular and unlikely to seek a third term. France is discouraged, worried about the rise of economic challenges from China and uncertain about how to reach out to unemployment-stricken blacks, Arabs and Muslims.
"I want to be the president of a reunited France," Sarkozy said in his acceptance speech before an estimated 70,000 people at the nomination convention. "Globalization requires us to reinvent everything -- to think of ourselves as compared to others."
His speech struck a conciliatory tone unusual for a man known for straight talk and, critics say, obstinacy.
"I'll need -- and France will need -- everybody here," Sarkozy said, standing among enormous screens and crowds of banner-waving fans as the 3.5 million euros [US$4.5 million], US-style political convention began.
Sarkozy, unlike Royal, has firm policy positions on nearly every subject. He has earned both kudos and vitriol for vowing to cut cherished workplace protections, championing tough police tactics in hardscrabble housing projects and dispatching illegal immigrants back to Africa and elsewhere.
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