Bastille Day is traditionally a time for the French President to shine. He reviews military parades, pardons prisoners, hosts a swank garden party, and gives a prominent television interview. But in last week's walkup to July 14, Jacques Chirac's star was eclipsed by fireworks from his outspoken, ambitious Finance Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy. On July 11, Sarkozy gave a long interview to Le Monde, in which he said France's 35-hour workweek should be revised and that the country should hold a referendum on the proposed E.U. constitution initiatives that Chirac previously opposed, but embraced in his Bastille Day TV appearance just three days later. In his TV interview, Chirac also ordered Sarkozy to fall into line, with reminders that theirs is a relationship in which "I order, he executes." Says Stéphane Rozès, director of polling institute CSA: "Chirac's stern call to order has people worried [the rivalry] could undermine the functioning of government if it gets worse."
The antagonism is likely to grow, since Sarkozy makes no secret of his intention to succeed Chirac as President in 2007, even though Chirac has not yet ruled himself out of the race. A Sarkozy adviser admits he not only expected Chirac's televised rebuke, but anticipated "something harsher, given all the comments and challenges [Chirac] has failed to address for so long." But instead of barking back, Sarkozy changed tack. Two days after Chirac's Bastille Day rebuke, the President's former presidential dauphin, Alain Juppé, resigned as head of Chirac's Union for a Popular Movement party clearing the path for Sarkozy's ascent. Too smart to express satisfaction or vindication, Sarkozy preached humility, telling a conservative rally he'd hold fire to preserve party unity. "I will not be the man who splits the right," Sarkozy intoned, leaving Chirac looking the aggressor. "In the interests of all, I won't say anything more." We'll believe that when we don't hear it.