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Nicolas Sarkozy takes over as president

world Updated: May 16, 2007 20:29 IST

AFP
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A new era opened in France on Wednesday as rightwinger Nicolas Sarkozy took over as president from Jacques Chirac in a ceremony at the Elysee palace.

The 52-year-old Sarkozy reviewed a parade of the Republican Guard at the presidential residence before being greeted by Chirac and ushered in for a private meeting. Chirac, 74, leaves office after serving 12 years as president.

In a symbolic handover of powers, Chirac was to pass on the launch codes to France's nuclear arsenal and brief Sarkozy on current agenda items. Chirac was then to leave the Elysee for the last time.

After hearing the results of his election victory formally announced, Sarkozy was to make a brief televised speech. A 21-gun salute was to be fired from the Invalides esplanade in central Paris across the river Seine.

Among guests at the Elysee were Sarkozy's wife Cecilia, their son Louis and the four grown-up children they have from previous marriages. Small crowds lined the street outside.

Later the new president was to rekindle the flame on the tomb of the unknown soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe and lay a wreath at a statue of General Charles de Gaulle, France's post-war leader.

He will then fly to Berlin for a meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel, where the future of the European Union will be the main issue for discussion.

A former interior minister and head of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), Sarkozy was elected president on May 6, easily beating the Socialist Segolene Royal on a promise of radical economic and social change.

He has vowed to act fast in office, calling a special session of the National Assembly in July to pass a first wave of reforms -- including tax cuts, trade union reforms, new controls on immigration and tougher sentencing rules for serial offenders.

His first task is to appoint a caretaker government to lead the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) into parliamentary elections on June 10 and 17.

On Thursday Sarkozy is expected to name former social affairs minister Francois Fillon, 53, as prime minister. Fillon successfully negotiated reforms to the pensions system in 2003.

The full cabinet is expected to be announced shortly after. Bernard Kouchner -a Socialist ex-minister who founded the charity Doctors Without Borders has been named as a likely surprise foreign minister.

On Tuesday, Chirac bid an emotional farewell to the nation, urging the people to remain "united and together" under Sarkozy.

"I want to tell you what a great honour it has been to serve you. I want to tell you how strong is the bond that from the depths of my heart unites me with every man and woman among you," Chirac said

On leaving the Elysee, Chirac and his wife Bernadette were to be taken to their new temporary home in an apartment on the river Seine overlooking the Louvre museum.

The flat has been loaned by the family of assassinated former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri, who was a close friend of the Chiracs. They are expected to stay there until they find a place of their own in Paris.

In his address to the nation, Chirac confirmed that he plans to set up a foundation later this year devoted to "dialogue between cultures and sustainable development".

Before then he is likely to face questioning from judges looking into allegations of illegal party funding during his 18 year stint as mayor of Paris.

Chirac's presidential immunity expires on June 16, and judicial officials have told media it is "most probable" he will be interviewed as a witness in a probe into a kickback scheme for paying party workers.

On Tuesday, Alain Juppe, a former aide of Chirac who has been tipped as a minister in Sarkozy's government, was questioned by judges in a connected investigation.