PARIS - Nicolas Sarkozy's ascent to the French presidency exemplifies the France that he envisions: a land of opportunity for those - even immigrants' children like himself - who work hard and abide by the rules.

Critics call Sarkozy, 52, a dangerous neoconservative. He heaps praise on America and strongly backs Israel. He often sees society in terms of black and white, right and wrong.

Sarkozy got to the presidential Elysee Palace through grit, huge ambition, opportunism and by promising a fresh start for France after 12 lackluster years under his predecessor and former mentor, Jacques Chirac.

Although Chirac and Sarkozy are both political conservatives, they were often rivals, not allies. For all his guile and experience, even Chirac could not thwart Sarkozy's rise to the top - even though he is thought to have had other successors in mind.

"I don't want to be president, I must be president," Sarkozy told biographer Catherine Nay.

Pugnacious and dynamic, Sarkozy has upset many. He fanned anger in poor neighborhoods where many blacks and Arabs live, by calling delinquents there "scum." The neighborhoods were swept up by a three-week wave of rioting in late 2005.

He has refused to apologize.

"I certainly have the intention of continuing to call a hoodlum a hoodlum, [and] scum, scum," he said last month.

For many, this election was a referendum on Sarkozy. Many voted for challenger Segolene Royal, hoping to keep him out.

As president, his main jobs will be defense and foreign policy. His frankness could clash with France's reputation for cool-headed diplomacy.

A fervent supporter of Israel and its security, he also supports a Palestinian state. He says his first big overseas trip will be to Africa, a longtime French sphere of influence that has been a growing source of illegal immigrants to Europe.

On the campaign trail, Sarkozy did not stray far from Chirac's line on foreign affairs. He lacks the personal contacts in the Mideast and Africa that Chirac had.

Sarkozy has embraced the nickname "Sarko the American" affixed by critics, saying France and the U.S. have a democratic kinship that transcends disagreements like one over the Iraq war.

Sarkozy has repeatedly plucked policy ideas from the United States. As interior minister, he led a "zero tolerance" policy on crime similar to that of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He favors a form of affirmative action - to hoist marginalized blacks and Arabs into mainstream society.

He is a fierce critic of France's 35-hour workweek, a Socialist reform of the 1990s, and promises to get around it by encouraging more overtime with tax breaks.

Nicolas Paul Stephane Sarkozy de Nagy-Bocsa grew up in a middle-class Paris home, the second of three sons of a French mother and an aristocratic Hungarian father who fled Communism after World War II.

Their divorce, when Nicolas was 3, was a sore point for him at the Catholic school he attended. His mother raised the boys with their grandfather, a Jewish-Greek doctor.

Sarkozy attended Paris' prestigious Institute of Political Sciences, and trained as a lawyer. But he did not go on to the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, the finishing school for much of France's political elite.

His ambition knows few bounds. In 1983, at age 28, he pushed aside his political mentor - who was also best man at his wedding - to become mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, France's richest town per capita.

Five years later he was elected to the National Assembly, and became budget minister and government spokesman in the early- to mid-1990s, under then-Prime Minister Edouard Balladur.

He took his biggest political hit when he endorsed Balladur instead of Chirac in the 1995 presidential election. Chirac won, and Sarkozy was cast into the political wilderness.

When conservatives regained control of parliament in 2002, however, Chirac appointed him interior minister. Sarkozy led a crackdown on crime, and his popularity soared.

In 1984, he fell for 27-year-old Cecilia Albeniz - while officiating as mayor of Neuilly at her wedding to a TV star, Nay wrote. By the late '80s, Sarkozy had left his first wife, and he and Cecilia were married in 1996. They have a son together. He has two sons from his first marriage.

Sarkozy doesn't drink alcohol but has a passion for chocolate and orange juice. He jogs, collects stamps and suffers migraine headaches.