President Nicolas Sarkozy's hopes of re-election next spring received a double blow yesterday with the defection of two leading centrist allies, including his estranged protégée, the former human rights minister Rama Yade.
The Senegal-born Ms Yade, 34 – once a striking symbol of Mr Sarkozy's policy of racial and gender "openness" – said that she was leaving the President's party in protest against its political exploitation of racial and religious issues.
Ms Yade will join a newly independent Radical Party, which has broken away from Mr Sarkozy's centre-right party under Jean-Louis Borloo, the former environment minister.
Mr Borloo, 60, said on Thursday night that he intended to offer a more "social" and "humanist" approach to centre-right voters than Mr Sarkozy's Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP). Although he has made no firm declaration, Mr Borloo is now expected to run in the first round of the presidential elections in 12 months' time.
By taking centrist, and even some right-wing votes, from the unpopular President, Mr Borloo might prevent Mr Sarkozy from reaching the two-candidate second round. A series of recent opinion polls has shown Mr Sarkozy trailing in third place behind a Socialist candidate (as yet unchosen) and the new leader of the far right, Marine Le Pen.
The defection of the radicals is the most serious sign so far of the deep divisions within Mr Sarkozy's UMP caused by the rise of Ms Le Pen and the President's swing in the past year towards the authoritarian, anti-immigrant hard right. Ms Yade complained yesterday that the UMP, created from a constellation of centre and right-wing parties, had abandoned its commitments to openness and fair opportunities for all.
She referred, in particular, to a debate organised by the UMP this week on the place of Islam in a secular France, and a series of intolerant remarks made by Claude Guéant, the Interior Minister and Mr Sarkozy's former chief of staff. Mr Guéant has said that French people "no longer feel at home in France" and that immigration is "out of control".
"It is not acceptable to divide French people between a kind of historic wing and the rest," said Ms Yade, the daughter of a Senegalese diplomatic family who was brought up in France. "We need a social project founded on hope, national unity and social togetherness."
President Sarkozy plucked Ms Yade from nowhere to make her a campaign spokeswoman in 2007 and then human rights, and later sports, minister. She was fired in a government reshuffle last November after making a series of remarks critical of government policy.
Mr Borloo resigned from the government at the same time after Mr Sarkozy failed to deliver a promise to make him prime minister.