updated 1/14/2007 6:47:41 AM ET 2007-01-14T11:47:41

When Nicolas Sarkozy clinches the French conservatives’ presidential nomination Sunday in a big-budget, American-style bash, he will push this pivotal race for a discouraged nation into high gear.

The anointment lands the dogged, divisive interior minister just one step away from a job he’s coveted for much of his life. The next three months may prove bruising for him and his Socialist rival Segolene Royal: Both must work hard to keep their parties united, and win over both moderates and extremes to come out on top.

Whoever wins, France’s next president will herald a new era after 12 years under Jacques Chirac, who is unlikely to run for a third term.

Many voters are hoping their next leader will find new direction for a nation worried about its future in Europe and the world.

Sunday’s $4.5 million convention for the conservative UMP party is aimed at giving Sarkozy momentum before the two-round election in April and May.

No other party candidates
Sarkozy, currently the French interior minister, is the party’s only candidate, after other hopefuls were tarnished by corruption scandals or government crises, or fell to Sarkozy’s steamroller-like takeover of the party.

Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, has earned both kudos and vitriol for promising to cut cherished workplace protections, championing tough police tactics in hardscrabble housing projects and dispatching illegal immigrants back to Africa and elsewhere.

Sarkozy says he’s trying to snap France out of its slump: He says the French are overtaxed, overburdened by government fees that crimp innovation, too resistant to speaking English and ill-prepared for globalization.

After a career of ups and downs and a falling out with one-time mentor Chirac, Sarkozy has in recent years won over or worn down most Chirac loyalists and ministers.

On Friday, Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie joined them, deciding to forego her own candidacy to back Sarkozy. Sarkozy welcomed her decision and promised her a prominent place in the campaign.

Sarkozy has alienated some
Still, his bald ambition has alienated many.

UMP lawmaker Nicolas Dupont-Aignan sounded a dissonant note on the eve of Sarkozy’s consecration, announcing Saturday that he would quit the party.

“We can no longer express ourselves,” he said.

That highlights the challenge Sarkozy will face in the months to come. Far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who came in a shock second place in 2002 presidential elections behind Chirac, is a real threat to Sarkozy’s right flank.

Candidates have even support
Meanwhile, many French voters hover around the center and decide whom to vote for at the last minute, making them prey for both Sarkozy and Royal. Polls show the two with remarkably even support.

As many as 60,000 people were expected at a conference center on Paris’ southern edge for Sunday’s party congress. The UMP reserved eight high-speed TGV trains to bring in party members from the provinces to the show.

Royal is keeping far from Sarkozy’s big bash Sunday, unveiling an oil press at a farm in her home region of Poitou-Charentes.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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