(photo credit: AP)
France's interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, formally clinched the ruling conservatives' presidential nomination Sunday, pushing a pivotal race for a discouraged nation into high gear.
The ruling UMP party announced that Sarkozy, the sole person listed on the party ballot, had won a vote by registered members. He now faces a tight race against the top contender on the left, Socialist Segolene Royal, for the elections in April and May.
"I do not have the right to fail," Sarkozy told tens of thousands of supporters packed in a conference hall on Paris's southern edge.
The anointment at a big-budget, American-style bash lands the dogged, divisive son of a Hungarian immigrant one step away from a job he has coveted for much of his life. The next three months may prove bruising for him and Royal: Both must work hard to keep their parties united and win over both moderates and extremes to come out on top.
Whoever wins, France's next president will herald a new era after 12 years under Jacques Chirac, who is unlikely to run for a third term. Many voters are hoping their next leader will find new direction for a nation worried about its future in Europe and the world, the economic challenge from China, and how to reach out to its unemployment-stricken blacks, Arabs and Muslims.
Sunday's $4.5 million convention for the conservative UMP party is aimed at giving Sarkozy momentum before the two-round election.
His challenge will be to hold together conservatives, including Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and party founder Chirac, who have not announced their backing for Sarkozy's candidacy.
"I'll need - and France will need - everybody here," Sarkozy told cheering party members in brief early remarks.
Villepin, a Sarkozy rival who has refused to endorse a candidate because Chirac has not announced his future plans, made a brief, closely scripted appearance at the convention and shook Sarkozy's hand.
Other potential challengers to Sarkozy's candidacy have been tarnished by corruption scandals or government crises, or fell to Sarkozy's takeover of the party.
Some 69 percent of UMP members, or a total of 233,779 people, took part in the vote; 229,303 voted for Sarkozy. The others left their ballot blank in protest - a sign that his bald ambition may have alienated many.
Sarkozy has earned both kudos and vitriol for promising to cut
cherished workplace protections, championing tough police tactics in hardscrabble housing projects and sending illegal immigrants back to Africa and elsewhere.
He says he is trying to snap France out of its slump: He says the French are overtaxed, overburdened by government fees that crimp innovation, too resistant to speaking English and ill-prepared for globalization.
After a career of ups and downs and a falling out with one-time mentor Chirac, Sarkozy has in recent years won over or worn down most Chirac loyalists and ministers.
Many French voters hover around the center and decide their vote at the last minute, but Royal is not Sarkozy's only challenge in the months to come. Jean-Marie Le Pen - the far-right leader who came in a shock second place in 2002 presidential elections behind Chirac - is a real threat to Sarkozy's right flank.