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20th Aug 2017

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French centre-right weighs up a Sarkozy return

  • Nicolas Sarkozy - he may be able to unite the UMP party but he carries a lot of political baggage (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

With a ruling Socialist party deserted by voters and a deeply unpopular president, the centre-right opposition (UMP) should be in a position to benefit. But that is far from the case.

Already undermined by a leadership crisis since Nicolas Sarkozy lost the presidential election in 2012, the UMP is now fighting for survival.

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France has been bemused by the extent of the conflict within the UMP that has sapped the party of its political strength and distracted it from focusing on serious policy issues.

The internal divisions culminated last month when Jean-François Cope, who had been running the party for the last two years, was forced to resign over the so called "Bygmalion affair".

Cope's move followed deeply contested internal elections – complete with accusations of fraud – brought about by allegations that the party ordered a communications agency, Bygmalion, to produce fake invoices to cover as much as €17 million in over-spending during Sarkozy's 2012 campaign.

The revelations about possible fraud came from the UMP camp itself – specifically Jerome

Lavrilleux, former vice-director of Nicolas Sarkozy's presidential campaign. He was elected to the European Parliament in May, and is now in the process of being expelled from the party.

This was one scandal of many for the UMP, already in shock after the party was pushed into second place behind far-right National Front in this year's European elections.

In a bid to calm things down, UMP elders formally decided to install a trio of former prime ministers to oversee the party.

On 10 June, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, Francois Fillon and Alain Juppe took "provisional control" of UMP until an extraordinary congress is held in autumn to name the new party president.

The trio immediately set about claiming the move had rescued the party.

It was "a group decision, a clear mandate, for unanimity: beautiful evening for the UMP!" tweeted Fillon while Raffarin said problems had been "overcome by a collective will". "The UMP is saved," he added.

Analysts are sceptical however.

"The choice of a triumvirate temporarily solves the critical issue of lack of democracy [inside the party]," says political scientist and author of a book on Sarkozy, Thomas Guenole.

But saying that this will be enough to "prevent the gangrene from spreading" is more of "an art of self-persuasion" than a reality, he adds.

Indeed, since then, new damaging developments for the party appear almost daily.

Just last weekend, the president of the UMP parliamentary group, Christian Jacob, was forced to admit that the UMP secretly took out a loan of €3 million from the UMP group in parliament after a showy presidential campaign. Or, put another way, it used public funds to redeem the party's debts.

Christian Jacob considered the move to be "completely legal" but it caused shock inside the

parliamentary group.

With the party turning on itself, and amid a leadership void, speculation has been fuelled that

former president Sarkozy might be tempted to step back into the fray.

The return of Sarkozy?

The very thought is yet a further point of contention in the UMP.

Some are urging Sarkozy to launch his comeback as soon as possible and to run for the party leadership in autumn. His comeback is a "necessity" for the party, said French MEP Brice Hortefeux.

But there are voices of concern who worry there may be scandals around Sarkozy that could explode during a possible presidential campaign in 2017.

"We have to cut the dead branches," national assembly member Bernard Debre told French Radio, referring directly to the former president.

To date, Sarkozy has not been implicated directly in the Bygmalion funding scandal, but some fear it may yet happen or that the suspicion alone is poisonous.

"How can you prepare a campaign in 2017 with such suspicion, such a degraded atmosphere, where everyone suspects everyone?" asked Etienne Blanc, one of the two UMP deputies that filed a lawsuit on behalf of "disgusted" party members against "persons unknown" in the affair.

Additionally, Sarkozy is still under investigation in various other cases concerning allegations of corruption or preventing the course of justice.

Among the accusations he faces is receiving illegal funds from French L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, the country's richest woman, and from former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi during his 2007 presidential campaign.

Sarkozy was cleared of personally accepting cash-filled envelopes in the Bettencourt case but his former campaign treasurer is still awaiting trial.

In addition, French investigative website Mediapart in March also published secret recordings of Sarkozy's calls to his lawyer showing that he tried to interfere in the investigation by using informants

inside the justice system.

Magistrates are also examining if France paid kickbacks to Pakistan linked to submarine sales in the 1990s when Sarkozy was budget minister.

Enough to discredit the former president? No, says Guenole.

If Nicolas Sarkozy were candidate to run the party in autumn, "his re-election would be a mere formality", believes the political scientist, who is author of 'Nicolas Sarkozy, Chronicle of an

Impossible Comeback?'.

He notes that the people who will vote in the congress are not involved in the media or the judiciary but are UMP activists.

While Sarkozy's popularity ratings are increasingly fragile among the wider public, within the party he is more popular than Fillon, also seen as potential presidential contender.

So far, right wing people in France "have adhered to [Nicolas Sarkozy's] line of defence" based on "victimisation" and the idea that he was persecuted by some French magistrates, notes Guenole.

Sarkozy, for his part, has been silent on the scandal and on a full return to public life.

The issue for the former president – who is known as a clever tactician – will be when exactly to return.

He had not expected to be contemplating a comeback so early – three years before the next elections – for fear of getting drawn into the party's bitter political infighting. Yet if he times it well he could fly in as the UMP's 'saviour'.

But most damaging for his personal popularity, reckons Guenole, would be to let the the party continue its spiral of self-destruction without stepping in.

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