PARIS — Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy accepted the presidential nomination of the ruling center-right party Sunday, promising to break with the past and setting up a high-stakes campaign that is likely to open a new era in French politics.
The overwhelming vote by members of the Union for a Popular Movement party culminated a drive by Sarkozy that overcame an intraparty rift with an old guard loyal to President Jacques Chirac, 74, who has been in office since 1995.
Although Sarkozy's plain-spoken, hard-charging, crime-fighter image has made him one of France's most popular leaders, he faces a tough challenge from Segolene Royal, a Socialist Party newcomer making an energetic bid to become the nation's first female president.
During his acceptance speech at the UMP convention Sunday, Sarkozy, the 51-year-old chief of the party, repeated his longtime promise to be a pioneer who breaks with economic stagnation, political malaise and an aloof elite.
"I am not a conservative," he said. "I want movement, innovation, creativity.... My France is that of those who vote for the extremes, not because they share their beliefs, but because they despair to be heard. Today I want to ask them to get back on the path of the Republic. My France is that of those who don't believe anymore in politics because politics lied to them so often."
But Sarkozy seemed aware that some voters worry about his combativeness, especially in contrast to Royal's warm and cheerful style. He spoke in an unusually personal tone about experiencing unspecified "failures" and said that he had changed as a man and as a politician.
"I thought politics had nothing to do with my personal emotions," he said. "I thought that a strong man must hide his emotions. I understood later that he who shows his true self is strong. I understood that humanity is a strength, not a weakness."
With Sarkozy in the ring, the battle for victory in the April election shapes up as a close fight among charismatic heavyweights presenting themselves to a disillusioned electorate as outsiders. Recent years have been marked by unemployment, low economic growth, nationwide riots in immigrant slums, and a pervasive sense that France is adrift and unable to change.
In addition to Royal, Sarkozy has to worry about foes on the right. Jean-Marie Le Pen, 78, of the far-right National Front, who startled the French by reaching the presidential runoff in 2002, is again running hard. Le Pen's proven potential to win as much as 20% of the vote has spurred Sarkozy to reinforce hard-line positions on immigration and crime. Sarkozy's pugnacious rhetoric has alienated some voters, though he also endorses measures such as affirmative action and permitting immigrants to vote in municipal elections.
Moreover, Chirac and a core of loyalists led by Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin have been a thorn in Sarkozy's side. They resent his blunt statements that France must move away from excessively state-driven policies and closer to the "Anglo-Saxon" model. They also resent him because he is more pro-American and pro-Israeli than most French leaders, criticizing him last year for visiting in the United States with President Bush, who is very unpopular here.
Chirac last week refused to rule out the possibility he might still seek a third term, although polls show that 80% of voters do not want him to run and see him as tired and out of touch. One well-placed government insider recently said he believes Chirac despises Sarkozy, a former protege, so much that he would prefer a Socialist victory. Chirac has until mid-March to decide on a longshot reelection bid.
In a display of the Chirac camp's lack of enthusiasm for the candidate, De Villepin, 53, made a cameo appearance at Sunday's convention but left before Sarkozy spoke. Chirac did not attend or send a message.
The feud has distracted Sarkozy and divided the government. On the other hand, it has aided his efforts to portray himself as a reformer despite his role as party chief and Cabinet minister. Although he is a wealthy lawyer, he also can point to an atypical background: The son of a Hungarian immigrant, Sarkozy did not attend the elite National School of Administration, which produces most French leaders, and he presents a contrast to Chirac and De Villepin, with their aristocratic airs.
Nonetheless, Sarkozy sounded conciliatory Sunday.
"I want to pay homage to Jacques Chirac, who honored France when he opposed the war in Iraq which was a mistake," Sarkozy said. "I want a France that talks always to America as a friend, who tells her always the truth and knows when to say no when she is wrong ... and when she wants to Americanize the world."
Sarkozy did not mention Royal during his 90-minute speech. Asked about this later during an interview on the TF1 television network, he said he wanted to present his program and refrain from attacking the Socialist as she has attacked him recently. But in a line likely to recur on the campaign trail, he noted that crime went up 14% during the last Socialist government and declined 10% during the years he has been the country's top law enforcement official.
Achrene Sicakyuz of The Times' Paris Bureau contributed to this report.