France’s former president Nicolas Sarkozy made an impassioned call for an end to the infighting at the heart of his UMP party, a day after he was elected as party chairman and head of France’s main centre-right opposition group.
In his first test since he abandoned his self-imposed retirement and returned to politics in September, Mr Sarkozy, 59, was comfortably elected on Saturday as president of France’s main opposition party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP). He was counting, however, on a crushing victory, not just a comfortable one.
The last time he stood for the UMP leadership 10 years ago, Mr Sarkozy won the votes of 85 per cent of party members putting him on course for his victory in the 2007 presidential elections. His supporters hoped for a score of at least 70 per cent on Saturday to give Mr Sarkozy the freedom to rebuild, and rename the UMP as his personal bandwagon for an assault on the Elysée.
“This is a new beginning,” he said. “I don’t want my country to be led down a road to a desperate situation, where the only choice is between today’s humiliation with Socialist President François Hollande or tomorrow’s humiliation with FN leader Marine le Pen.”
Top of the agenda for Monday morning, Sarkozy said, was to form a “committee of former prime ministers” to help turn the UMP into a viable political force in the face of these challenges.
“I’ve no intention of managing the UMP’s future alone,” he said. “Our duty, whatever our personal ambitions, alliances and even animosities, is to unite so that we can create the conditions for a modern political alternative based on new ideas.”
Sarkozy’s committee of “wise men”, as it has already been dubbed by the French media, includes Alain Juppé, prime minister under former president Jacques Chirac, who has stated his intention to compete in the 2016 primaries ahead of the 2017 presidential election.
Current French President Francois Hollande is enduring some dismal ratings but the memory of Sarkozy’s “bling bling” presidency, as his critics call it, could stop Sarkozy from shacking up in Elysée Palace for another term.
His wife, however, is a big part of his plan. While the French public disliked Sarkozy’s bling, they generally saw Mrs Sarkozy-Bruni as classy and affable. There were some questions as to whether she would allow her husband to return to politics. She famously complained that she couldn’t get good modelling contracts with her husband running the country. But her recent comments to L’Express say something else: “I’m afraid that without politics, my husband would lose the meaning of life.”
With his wife on side, his centre-right UMP peers are not the only people standing in between Sarkozy and the presidency. Marine Le Pen, the far-right National Front leader is gaining huge support and could easily become his bête noire, with a recent opinion poll suggesting Ms Le Pen could win 30 per cent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election.
An Ifop poll for Sunday’s Journal du Dimanche gave Juppé 43 percent support among French voters against Sarkozy’s 27 percent, although Sarkozy is marginally ahead among UMP supporters.
Sarkozy also praised Bruno Le Maire, his rival in Saturday’s vote who took 29.8 percent of the ballot, as “one of our best hopes” in a reformed UMP.