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Chirac Announces Backing for French Presidential Candidate Sarkozy

French President Jacques Chirac says he will back right-wing candidate and long-time rival Nicolas Sarkozy in the race to replace him. He said Mr. Sarkozy will quit his current job as interior minister on March 26 to focus full-time on the campaign. Anita Elash reports from Paris.

Nicolas Sarkozy belongs to the political party that was created for Jacques Chirac five years ago, the Union for a Democratic Movement. And, as interior minister, he is one of the most prominent members of Mr. Chirac's government. But the two have been rivals for years, the animosity between them has grown in the last few months as Mr. Sarkozy campaigned for a "clean break" with the president's policies.

Voters go to the polls on April 22, and Mr. Chirac waited until the last possible moment to announce his support for Mr. Sarkozy.

In a recorded address, Mr. Chirac said that the UMP party was created to pursue a policy of modernization, and that is why he is backing Mr. Sarkozy.

In all its diversity, the UMP chose to support the candidacy of Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential election because of his qualities, Mr. Chirac said. "Naturally," he added, "I will therefore bring him my vote and my support."

Despite their differences, Mr. Sarkozy has acknowledged that the president's endorsement would help him win votes.

Mr. Sarkozy has been interior minister for five years. During that time, he developed a reputation as a tough-talking man of action. He claims to have reduced crime by nine percent since 2002 by getting tough on young offenders and setting new targets for police. But he is unpopular in the largely immigrant suburbs, where critics say he has stirred up tension by referring to young troublemakers as "rabble" who should be "hosed down."

He has also been criticized for remaining in his post as interior minister while running his campaign for president.

Mr. Sarkozy is the front-runner in the campaign. His main rivals are centrist Francois Bayrou and Socialist Segolene Royal.