- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 6, 2007

PARIS — Nicolas Sarkozy’s ascent to the French presidency exemplifies the France that he envisions — a land of opportunity for those — even immigrants’ children like himself — who work hard and abide by the rules.

Critics call Mr. Sarkozy, 52, a dangerous neoconservative. He heaps praise on America and strongly backs Israel. He often sees society in terms of black and white, right and wrong.

Mr. Sarkozy got to the presidential Elysee Palace through grit, huge ambition, opportunism and by promising a fresh start for France after 12 lackluster years under his predecessor and former mentor, Jacques Chirac.

Although Mr. Chirac and Mr. Sarkozy are political conservatives, they were often rivals, not allies. For all his guile and experience, even Mr. Chirac could not thwart Mr. Sarkozy’s rise to the top — though he is thought to have had other successors in mind.

“I don’t want to be president; I must be president,” Mr. Sarkozy told biographer Catherine Nay.

Pugnacious and dynamic, Mr. Sarkozy has upset many. He fanned anger in poor neighborhoods where many blacks and Arabs live by calling delinquents there “scum.” The neighborhoods were swept up by a three-week wave of rioting in late 2005.

He has refused to apologize.

“I certainly have the intention of continuing to call a hoodlum a hoodlum, [and] scum, scum,” he said last month.

For many, this election was a referendum on Mr. Sarkozy. Many voters backed his challenger, Segolene Royal, in hopes of keeping him out.

As president, his main jobs will be defense and foreign policy. His frankness could clash with France’s reputation for cool-headed diplomacy.

A fervent supporter of Israel and its security, he also supports a Palestinian state. He says his first big overseas trip will be to Africa, a longtime French sphere of influence that has been a growing source of illegal aliens to Europe.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Sarkozy did not stray far from Mr. Chirac’s line on foreign affairs. He lacks the vast personal contacts in the Middle East or Africa that Mr. Chirac employed.

Mr. Sarkozy has embraced the nickname “Sarko the American” affixed by critics, saying France and the United States have a democratic kinship that transcends disagreements like one over the Iraq war.

Mr. Sarkozy has repeatedly plucked policy ideas from the United States. As interior minister, he led a “zero tolerance” policy on crime similar to that of former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. He favors a form of affirmative action — to hoist marginalized blacks and Arabs into mainstream society.

He is a fierce critic of France’s 35-hour work week, a Socialist reform of the 1990s, and promises to get around it by encouraging more overtime with tax breaks.

Nicolas Paul Stephane Sarkozy de Nagy-Bocsa grew up in a middle-class Paris home, the second of three sons of a French mother and an aristocratic Hungarian father who fled communism after World War II.

Their divorce, when Nicolas was three, was a sore point for him at the Catholic school he attended. His mother raised the boys with their grandfather, a Jewish-Greek doctor.

Mr. Sarkozy attended Paris’ prestigious Institute of Political Sciences and trained as a lawyer. But he did not go on to the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, the finishing school for much of France’s political elite.

His ambition knows few bounds. In 1983, at 28, he pushed aside his political mentor — who was also best man at his wedding — to become mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, France’s richest town per capita.

Five years later he was elected to the National Assembly and became budget minister and government spokesman in the early- to mid-1990s, under Prime Minister Edouard Balladur.

He took his biggest political hit when he endorsed Mr. Balladur instead of Mr. Chirac in the 1995 presidential election. Mr. Chirac won, and Mr. Sarkozy was cast into the political wilderness.

When conservatives regained control of parliament in 2002, however, Mr. Chirac appointed him interior minister. Mr. Sarkozy led a crackdown on crime, and his popularity soared.

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