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Nicolas Sarkozy: France's staunch nationalist

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(CNN) -- Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French Interior Minister and head of the ruling conservative UMP party, is a staunch nationalist and presents himself as an alternative to France's ruling elite.

Former protege to outgoing President Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy fell out of favor with his mentor in 1995 when he backed Chirac's rival Eduoard Balladur in the presidential race. Sarkozy clinched the support of President Chirac in March, marking an end to nearly a decade of tensions between the two.

Sarkozy, 52, was born in Paris to a French mother and Hungarian father who fled to France following the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1944. He grew up in Neuilly-sur-Seine or Neuilly, an affluent Paris suburb.

After obtaining a bachelor's degree in law from the University of Paris X, he studied political science at the Paris Institute of Political Studies. Sarkozy passed the bar at 26 and became a lawyer specializing in French business law.

Sarkozy began his political career while he was still in school. He was elected a city councilman in Neuilly in 1977 at the age of 22 and in 1983 he was elected mayor, staying in office for nearly two decades.

In 1993, Sarkozy made his national debut as Minister for the Budget and spokesman for then Prime Minister Edouard Baladur. After Jacques Chirac was elected president in 2002, Sarkozy stepped into the role of Interior Minister. Sarkozy stepped down from the post in March to focus on his campaign.

Sarkozy is pro-American and supports interventionist as well as free-market economics. He served as Finance Minister for a short time in 2004, the same year he used state funds to rescue the energy company Alstom from bankruptcy.

Sarkozy was subject to criticism for his tough stance on curbing violent protests during the 2005 Paris riots. There were calls for Sarkozy to resign as Interior Minister and he gained widespread unpopularity among disenfranchised Paris communities for referring to antisocial youths as "scum."

In the past, Sarkozy has objected to Turkey's bid to join the EU and has taken a tough stance on illegal immigration.

-- Compiled by Zein Basravi for CNN

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