PARIS (Reuters) - Nicolas Sarkozy succeeded Jacques Chirac as French president on Wednesday with a promise to usher in an era of change, and flew immediately to Germany for talks on shaking the European Union out of its paralysis.
In a day of high pageantry and symbolic gesture, Sarkozy made his inaugural speech under the chandeliers of the Elysee Palace, which will be his home for the next five years.
“I will defend the independence of France. I will defend the identity of France,” said the conservative leader, who is the first French head of state to be born after World War Two.
“There is a need to unite the French people ... and to meet commitments because never before has (public) confidence been so shaken and so fragile,” he said in an apparent dig at Chirac, a former political mentor with whom he now has strained relations.
Chirac, who ruled for 12 years, met Sarkozy in private to give him the launch codes for France’s nuclear strike force before driving off into retirement, with Sarkozy applauding and waving goodbye from the Elysee Palace courtyard.
Sarkozy, who scored a comprehensive election victory on May 6, also pledged to put the fight against global warming and the defense of human rights at the heart of his foreign policy.
His first act after his speech was to greet family members, including his wife, Cecilia, who has hardly been seen in public this year, fuelling speculation about their marriage.
Sarkozy rode in an open-top car up the Avenue des Champs Elysees, escorted by the mounted Republican Guard, and rekindled the flame at the tomb of the unknown soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe.
He laid wreaths at statues of France’s World War One and Two leaders, Georges Clemenceau and General Charles de Gaulle, before honoring 35 resistance fighters killed by the Nazis on the outskirts of Paris.
He then left for talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying the Paris-Berlin axis was “sacred” and that the two nations had to work together to put the EU back on track after French and Dutch voters rejected an EU constitution in 2005.
“The first emergency is to get the European Union out of its current paralysis,” he told reporters in Berlin.
“For that, it is necessary that Germany, which today holds the EU presidency, and France, which has always been its privileged partner in Europe, see eye to eye on this.”
The two allies also needed to work on industrial policy, notably European aerospace group EADS, he said, referring to Franco-German differences over the Airbus maker’s public-private shareholder structure.
In Paris, Sarkozy’s office said his new prime minister, expected to be moderate conservative Francois Fillon, would be named on Thursday. A streamlined cabinet that includes centrists and high-profile leftists will likely be unveiled on Friday.
Sarkozy is set to reach across political divides by appointing as foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, a Socialist former health minister and human rights campaigner.
The new head of state inherits a fractured society, dispirited by years of high unemployment, and says he will take a more hands-on approach than his predecessor.
“From this day on and for the duration of your mandate, you embody France, symbolize the republic and represent all the French people,” Constitutional Court president Jean-Luis Debre said as he proclaimed Sarkozy France’s 23 president.
Sarkozy wants to be judged on his record in trying to revive the economy. He got good news on Wednesday with data showing the private sector adding jobs at the fastest rate in six years and growth seen picking up in the second quarter.
But unions and students have warned Sarkozy not to ram through reform without negotiations.
Additional reporting by Kerstin Gehmlich