JACQUES Chirac has been around in French political life for so long now that is easy to assume he has some kind of permanent status under the country's constitution. A reminder that he has nothing of the kind came earlier this week when the movement that he founded in 1976, now known as the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) , elected Nikolas Sarkozy, 49, as its leader in place of Alain Juppe, the former prime minister and loyal Chirac aide, who was convicted on illegal party financing charges earlier this year. While campaigning for the leadership of the UMP Nikolas Sarkozy made no secret of the fact that his ambition is to replace Jacques Chirac as the party's representative in the next Presidential election in 2007. By then President Chirac will be 75 but he has so far given no hint of whether he will retire quietly rather than face a bruising fight within his own party; one factor that may weigh heavily with him is the immunity that his present position gives him from prosecution for alleged party funding irregularities when he was Mayor of Paris.
Nikolas Sarkozy, who was Finance Minister in the current French government until he resigned yesterday, set out his stall in clear terms: We have to change because the French are expecting more than the discourse of the past, solutions applied a thousand times over and words that have lost their meaning. We would all miss Jacques Chirac's eloquent phrases, extravagant gestures and expressive face but words that have lost their meaning is a powerful indictment.