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Sunday’s unopposed nomination of Nicolas Sarkozy as the presidential candidate for France’s ruling UMP party is a remarkable tribute to the single-mindedness and determination of an outsider to the country’s traditional political elite. He succeeded in spite of the open and often bitter opposition of President Jacques Chirac, his one-time mentor, and of Dominique de Villepin, his prime minister and arch-rival. His political tactics in seizing control of the party, and exploiting the popular dissatisfaction with Mr Chirac’s presidency, have been brilliant. Yet the very qualities that have driven him so far in search of the ultimate prize could yet undermine his final campaign for the presidential elections in little more than three months’ time.

The truth is that he seems to attract and alarm French voters in equal measure. “We need a president like Sarkozy, but not Sarkozy,” as one leading commentator put it last year. He has campaigned on the slogan of wanting a “rupture” – a clean break from the politics of the past. But in recent weeks he has toned down the rhetoric, and sought to soften his image, as the battle has shifted from seeing off right-wing rivals to defeating the Socialists’ Ségolène Royal in the final run-off.

So who is the real Nicolas Sarkozy? As interior minister, he has been unashamedly conservative, tough on law and order, stepping up the expulsion of illegal immigrants, and calling for more selective immigration. He wants to create “civil unions” for homosexuals, but opposes gay marriages and the right to adopt children. He favours a legally enforceable right to housing for the homeless.

He calls himself an economic liberal, in a country where the word “liberal” is almost as unpopular as it is in America. He promotes more labour market flexibility and lower taxation. Yet his recent speeches have sounded alarmingly protectionist, and his track record as finance minister was notably dirigiste. He intervened to save Alstom, the ailing engineering group, from bankruptcy, and brokered a French merger of Aventis and Sanofi to see off a takeover by Switzerland’s Novartis. He sought to force supermarkets to freeze their prices, and would cut tax relief for companies that move jobs overseas.

These are confusing signals for voters who are fed up with the old political establishment – on both left and right – but are still not ready to vote for a revolution. Mr Sarkozy’s dilemma is clear.

In the first round of the elections (on April 22), he must see off the far right challenge of Jean-Marie Le Pen, and the centre-right alternative of François Bayrou, to ensure that he wins through to the run-off ballot on May 6. Hence the need to sharpen his clear conservative credentials. But if he then faces Ms Royal in the final contest, he must show he can win the centre ground, by being less economically liberal, and more caring.

To Mr Sarkozy’s credit, he has already spelled out a raft of policy positions, unlike Ms Royal, who has relied on her engaging style, and deliberately avoided divisive substance. But his policies are now hostage to fortune, while she keeps quiet. He may blunder by saying too much (his speech in Washington regretting the “arrogance” of French foreign policy went down very badly at home), while she says too little.

One man whose silence is damaging his own political family is Mr Chirac. His desire to keep people guessing whether he might not stand again for re-election after all is bad for the Gaullists and bad for France. He is tired and unpopular, and has run out of ideas. If he ran, he would be humiliated.

As for Mr Sarkozy, he must now demonstrate that he is a coherent politician who is more than a brilliant populist with a flair for self-publicity. Instead of pandering to French fears of globalisation and excess immigration, he should demonstrate that he has the vision and consistency to give France back the self-confidence, openness and liberal values on which the republic was founded. He needs to reassure voters that he is more than an alarming figure seeking personal power. He must demonstrate that he wants to be president for the good of France, not just for the good of Nicolas Sarkozy.

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