During warfare, a sudden lull in hostilities can sometimes be mistaken for a truce. But in the battle between French President Jacques Chirac and his hyper-ambitious Finance Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, don't bet on seeing a white flag. Last week France's worst-kept secret was confirmed by the news that Sarkozy will seek the presidency of Chirac's own Union for a Popular Movement (ump) party. The wildly popular Sarkozy, a shoo-in to grab the ump's leadership position in November, will try to use the party's mighty electoral machine to win the 2007 presidential election himself. Chirac hasn't yet said if he'll run for a third term. For months he's tried to prevent Sarkozy from taking over the ump, even threatening to fire him if he persisted in his bid.
But it was Chirac, not Sarkozy, who put out the news. As Sarkozy's announcement was imminent last week, Chirac pre-empted him to leak confirmation after a private meeting between the two men, which was described as "warm" by Elysée officials. They said Chirac fully backed the Sarkozy bid he had sought so long to prevent. "Chirac was beaten, so he's trying to save face by giving the impression he is still master of the game," says a Sarkozy adviser, who mocks any notions that fences have been mended between the rivals: "They hate each other." The Sarkozy camp is hoping Chirac won't want to be made to look vindictive by forcing out his Finance Minister; the Chirac camp is hoping that Sarkozy will be compelled to take a back seat in the party where, at least in theory, he will have to support the President. Either way, the next salvo can't be far off.