Marriage made in heaven

As France braces itself for next year's presidential election, all eyes are on two media creations,

Matrimonially, the struggle for power in France is looking a little tidier. You may pick out those who believe they have the best chance of winning the presidency next May by the care they are taking to repackage their private lives. Before whirring TV cameras, Nicolas Sarkozy retrieves his wife from her fling with an adman. The newcomer Ségolène Royal talks of marrying the father of her four children.

In the torrid high-summer break from politics, marital correctness may not be the first thing on French minds. Indeed, it might seem a slight consideration in any season, were it not for one fact: the battle to replace Jacques Chirac shows every sign of being a celebrity show rather than a conflict of ideas.

The Socialist "Ségo" is as close as it gets to being a creation of the media; the conservative "Sarko" is the media's obsession. They are the leading contenders by far. Maybe they know just where they stand on policy, but it is sometimes hard for the public to know, unless voters are able to construe real meaning from her repeated aim to be "positive" and from his to be "modern". So, perhaps, matrimonial convention is a starting point at which everyone can assemble.

Before the campaign moves into high gear at the rentrée in September, a more substantial starting point is Chirac himself. His is a national tragedy, as the commentator Franz-Olivier Giesbert contends in his book La Tragédie du président: "After leading his life to the sound of trumpets, Jacques Chirac has transformed himself, with age, into the very incarnation of French decline and government impotence."

Government under Chirac has indeed been a farce in the past year. One can see why the French, unhopeful at first, came to expect a great lift in morale from victory in the World Cup. Alas, a crossbar got in the way of redemption. Not that France is altogether a spent force: the underlying power of the economy is gradually pulling unemployment below its 10 per cent peak, while growth - expected to be 2 per cent this year - is regaining the momentum at least to rejoin the European average. For this, it is prudent to thank a global business upswing (France has held on to a commanding position in the world exporters' league) rather than the underperforming French economic model. But the events that have lately demoralised France - blazing riots in ghetto suburbs where immigrant families live, an irrational national revolt against measures to put the young to work, a tempest over corruption in high places - have all shown the mark of ludicrous divisions in government.

This is the predictable outcome of Chirac's strange ploy of placing two men who openly despise each other in joint charge of the nation's affairs. Perhaps even he didn't imagine that the court favourite he named as prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, and the pest he felt obliged to place on an equal power footing as interior minister, Sarkozy, would permit their desire for mutual destruction to make such a shambles of the end of the Chirac era.

As the impact of the disturbances fades, their chief victim is the beautifully groomed Ville-pin. Having pulled the strings behind Chirac for years, the patrician bureaucrat has sunk out of sight in the opinion ratings. His high-handed manner has disabused a large majority of deputies from the ruling party in parliament, the centre-right UMP, of which Sarkozy is the uncontested leader. Most deputies now want to be rid of Villepin. However, Chirac has made it clear that his favourite will continue as prime minister to the end of his own presidential term.

If Villepin does make a comeback, it will be over Sarkozy's dead body. The prime minister has been held responsible, and rightly so, for the jobs-for-youths fiasco and for the humiliating climbdown it entailed. The interior minister, meanwhile, contrived to turn the tables on the premier in the current corruption saga - not because Villepin is implicated in the defence kickbacks bundled under the name Clearstream, an offshore banking operation, but because Sarkozy has let it be known that he believes Villepin used the scandal in a vain attempt to smear him.

Sarkozy sees plots being hatched against him in every dark corner of Villepin's office and in Chirac's Elysée Palace. His suspicions are reflec ted in the title of a campaign memoir, Témoign age ("testimony"), published to catch the fancy of readers on the beaches. In it, he argues that being popular does not make him a vulgar populist; and if people insist in believing he is "too much" it is because he has come to realise that those who stand back and bide their time most often miss the boat. He is a fighter, a people's champion who won't be pushed or otherwise tricked into being brought down.

Sarkozy became the youngest ever mayor of the fashionable Paris suburb of Neuilly while still in his twenties. His posts in government date back to the Mitterrand era, during cohabitation with the right. No doubt his call for a "rupture" with the regulated French economic model has made him seem novel. So has his open warfare with the Chirac entourage.

Sarkozy's personality attracts odium as well as admiration, as the suburban riots and his hard talk on security have shown. Liberal opinion in France is no happier than the restless Arab immigrant young are with his brutal pledges to "clean out" (his actual term derives from the name of a familiar paint stripper) sink estates and get rid of their "scum". But it somehow suits French interior ministers to be uncompromising, and his overall approach to immigration is, in fact, neither illiberal nor intolerant, as befits the son of a Hungarian émigré. His proposal for affir mative action in favour of the immigrant underclass - "positive discrimination", he calls it - sets him apart from most in his own party.

At present, he is ensnared in a conflict over tens of thousands of illegal immigrants whose children are enrolled in state schools. No question of throwing them out, he concurs, raising hackles on his right. A charitable view of Sarko is that his vocabulary is either a helpless part of the impetuosity that drives him or, as he prefers to see it, an attempt to gain the support of the numerous voters who have drifted to Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front on the extreme right.

Neither Sarko nor Ségo is exactly new, though she is a fresher face than he and has no difficulty in presenting herself as untainted by the past. Royal has twice held junior posts in Socialist governments and, at 52, has kept her star aglow as president of the buoyant Poitou-Charentes region on the Atlantic coast. The media latched on to her only some six months ago when it became clear that the established Socialist figures were an uninspiring bunch. At first her ratings shot up because her face was everywhere, on TV screens and magazine spreads. A somewhat grating voice suggested her bubble would burst sooner rather than later. Gradually, however, she has assumed authority by positioning herself above tired infighting. Instead, she plays to her assets - her novelty value, her womanhood (French voters seem easy with the concept of a woman as president), her non-doctrinaire approach and a taste for reform. She is likened to Tony Blair for her apparent will to relieve the left of Socialist baggage, and seems not to mind the comparison despite the British PM's sliding reputation. She tours the country making speeches to packed houses, the mark of a media darling.

In short, she infuriates those Socialist heavyweights - ex-prime ministers among them - in front of whom she has serenely pushed. They regard her as a usurper. They dislike her with the irritated passion that Villepin reserves for Sarkozy. Her experience, they carp, doesn't measure up to the size of her ambitions. (She is in fact a product of the École Nationale d'Administration, which trains the French governing class, as are they all, or most of them.) The likes of Laurent Fabius, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Jack Lang and, lately, Lionel Jospin - a true giant of the left, though deflated after his collapse in the previous presidential election in 2002 - all want to be president and seem reduced to waiting for her to make a false move to advance their claims.

Tougher than thou

Does Royal represent Socialist values? Her background induces scepticism: born in French colonial Africa, she comes from the devout Catholic military caste that leans to the hard right. These are the stern antecedents she rejected as a student, cutting herself off from her army colonel father, but traces sometimes re-emerge. A solution she proposed for dealing with young miscreants in the jobless ghetto suburbs - "put them in the army" - had her centre-left rivals tripping over themselves to paint her as a reactionary.

Ségo has tricky relations with the affable first secretary of the Socialist Party, François Hollande. As her long-standing live-in partner, he is the father of their four children. He, too, has his eyes on the Socialist presidential nomination, which will be decided at a convention in November. The mood of party radicals is overwhelmingly in favour of Royal; they see her as a winner. It tests the imagination to think what this couple say to each other at breakfast: it can't all be about converting their unconventional union into holy matrimony.

Even at this stage it seems likely that Sarko and Ségo will go head-to-head for the presidency. There may still be time, just, for the Ségo bubble to burst or for Sarko to say something so outrageous that he confirms nagging doubts about his suitability. Their campaigns intertwine, in that both make employment and security their big issues. But she has to play catch-up on security, which is prime Sarkozy turf. Her recent efforts to sound as if she matches his firmness brought his teasing invitation: "Join the club. A little tougher still and I'll yield her the UMP leadership."

What isn't at all clear is how far either will dare, in the name of re-energising the economy, to reshape the French economic model and the social protections to which voters cling. Both are pro-European and aim to re-engage with Europe after the disastrous French "No" in last year's referendum on the EU constitutional treaty. They seem ready to revise the 35-hour working week limitation, a Jospin legacy. But unrestrained capitalism seems to be losing some of its shine as a global panacea these days and the next president will have fresh reason to view it with mistrust.

The closer the election draws, the less Sarkozy talks of his "rupture" with French economic tradition. He has taken to declaring: "I am neither Mrs Thatcher nor Ronald Reagan." At times he comes closer to Silvio Berlusconi: his complaints to the owner of Paris-Match secured the dismissal of the editorial director of France's most popular magazine - for publishing pictures of Sarkozy's wife, Cécilia, enjoying a stay in New York and Cannes with her adman friend.

Now, with Cécilia back in the marital fold, and the TV cameras invited to confirm it, one rupture seems repaired. Another waits to happen.

David Lawday's biography of Talleyrand, "Napoleon's Master", will be published by Jonathan Cape in September

Sarko v Ségo: the contest

Nicolas Sarkozy

Born Nicolas Paul Stéphane Sarközy de Nagy-Bócsa in 1955 to a French mother and Hungarian father, who left the family when Sarkozy was four years old, he trained as a lawyer. He broke into politics as a councillor for Neuilly-sur-Seine, then became mayor, and joined the Rally for the Republic (RPR), predecessor to the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). In 1993 Sarkozy became minister for the budget in Édouard Balladur's cabinet, subsequently holding this and the position of interior minister under Jean-Pierre Raffarin. He is currently minister of the interior and head of the conservative UMP. Sarkozy has been married twice and is father to three sons.

Ségolène Royal

Born in Senegal in 1953, Royal studied in Paris at Sciences-Po and ÉNA, both finishing schools for the French political elite. She entered the Socialist Party (PS) after a brief stint as a judge in the administrative court. Long-standing regional deputy for Deux-Sèvres, she has held ministerial positions in the departments of the environment, education, the family and social affairs, but had a relatively low profile at the national level until she declared her intention to run for president. Though dismissed by some colleagues, she has performed well in opinion polls and has set up her own think-tank, Désirs d'avenir, to formulate policy. Her partner is the PS leader, François Hollande; they have four children together.