Fight for the French right: François Fillon goes head-to-head with Nicolas Sarkozy

Ex-Prime Minister battles with former ally for leadership of the UMP
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The former French Prime Minister François Fillon has declared war on his ex-boss Nicolas Sarkozy in a battle for the vacant leadership of the French right.

A predictable showdown between the one-time partners has been accelerated by the behaviour of the nominally “retired” former President Mr Sarkozy, who has taken to  presenting himself as France’s lost hero and saviour-in-waiting. The usually understated Mr Fillon, 59, has ripped into Mr Sarkozy as a man whose personal power games threaten to discredit their centre-right party and hand the next presidential election to President François Hollande.

“No one has the right to say: ‘I am the only solution…” The old days of self-anointed leaders are over,” Mr Fillon told a party meeting in the south of France. In a private conversation afterwards, Mr Fillon told supporters that he would – if necessary – stand against Mr Sarkozy in the first round of the next presidential election in 2017. Their party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) has agreed to hold a primary election in 2016 to choose its presidential candidate. However, Mr Sarkozy implied this week that he might launch an independent bid to return to the Elysée Palace as a candidate of national salvation “not limited to the right”.

In his speech at la Grande-Motte near Montpellier, Mr Fillon broke all pretence of continuing friendly relations with Mr Sarkozy, the man he served as Prime Minister from 2007 to 2012. “The UMP cannot stand still. It cannot be placed in a deep freeze. It cannot be placed in detention awaiting a man of destiny,” Mr Fillon said. “Waiting for the left to collapse is … the way to ensure failure.”  

Mr Fillon is not the only senior figure in the UMP to be furious with Mr Sarkozy. The party faces possible bankruptcy because it has been refused €11m (£9.5m) in state funding following Mr Sarkozy’s failed 2012 presidential campaign.

The money has been withheld because the constitutional watchdog, the Conseil Constitutionnel, judged last week that Mr Sarkozy had exceeded the official spending limits and had presented misleading accounts.Far from being contrite, Mr Sarkozy and his supporters have attempted to use this ruling  to revive the ex-President’s political fortunes by presenting him as the victim of a plot by an institutional elite.

On Monday Mr Sarkozy made a de facto return to politics by addressing a crisis meeting of the UMP’s political bureau. Far from apologising for the problems he had caused or offering a solution, he implicitly attacked Mr Fillon and presented himself as the only possible saviour of the centre-right – and of France.

“It was an incredible performance,” one UMP parliamentarian said in private. “Sarko lost us the election. He had his campaign accounts declared illegal. And we are supposed to pay the bill and applaud his speech.”

Opinion polls suggest that Mr Fillon is more likely to win broad support than Mr Sarkozy in 2017 but that the former President remains more popular with the UMP’s grassroots.