French centre-right threatens to tear itself apart after poll defeat

Sarkozy's 'nationalist' campaign attacked as rival factions prepare for leadership contest

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy may have withdrawn from politics following his failed re-election attempt, but arguments over his legacy are threatening to tear apart his centre-right party.

Battle lines are being drawn to seize the leadership – and the soul – of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) at the party congress later this year, after Mr Sarkozy's ultra-nationalist re-election strategy was repudiated by his own campaign spokeswoman and by two former centre-right prime ministers.

A meeting of party chieftains in Paris yesterday refused demands from several former ministers for an official post mortem on Mr Sarkozy's campaign and presidency. It was agreed, however, that a new charter of "values" would be drawn up by the end of next month in an attempt to redefine the UMP's position on explosive subjects such as race, immigration, national sovereignty and Europe.

Tempers within the party were strained to bursting point earlier this week when Mr Sarkozy's ex-spokeswoman, the former Environment Minister, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, attacked the political morality of campaign that she had helped to lead.

She suggested that Mr Sarkozy's election strategy had been influenced by the views of Charles Maurras, a leading thinker and writer of the 1930s and 1940s known for his staunch nationalism.

She criticised, in particular, Mr Sarkozy's campaign strategist, Patrick Buisson, a former follower of Maurras, who helped to impose the eurosceptic and anti-Islamic tone of the president's campaign.

The former Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, also accused Mr Sarkozy of "losing touch" with the "humanist wing" of the UMP. One of the principal fault-lines in the much-splintered party divides those who wish to make deals with Marine Le Pen's cleaned-up National Front party and those who believe that the centre-right should be defined by its rejection of racial and anti-Islamic themes.

Frederic Salat-Baroux, chief official in the Elysée Palace under Jacques Chirac, accused Mr Sarkozy in an article in Le Figaro yesterday of leading the UMP into "calculating" but dangerous territory. He said that Mr Sarkozy had led the party in "breathless pursuit of NF votes" by "distinguishing between French people according to their ethnic origins".

Three men are in contention to succeed Mr Sarkozy as the Next Big Thing on the French centre-right this November. They included the current UMP president, Jean-François Copé, who refuses to criticise the Sarkozy line. He won the first round of skirmishing this week when one of his supporters, Christian Jacob, was selected as the new UMP parliamentary leader.

Mr Copé will face a strong challenge, however, from Mr Sarkozy's Prime Minister, François Fillon and the former Prime Minister, Alain Juppé.

Mr Fillon has not criticised the Sarkozy campaign publicly but has done so in private. He has also lambasted several UMP candidates who spoke of their "shared values" with the far-right in an attempt to attract NF votes in the parliamentary elections this month.

Mr Juppé, Prime Minister in 1993-95 under Jacques Chirac, has criticised the Sarkozy campaign for straying too far into NF territory. He hopes to emerge as the man who can draw the party together in the autumn.

Ms Le Pen, meanwhile, hopes to follow up her relative success in the presidential and parliamentary elections by exploiting the fractures within the UMP. She plans to expand her movement by capturing some of the hardest-right UMP politicians, 20 of whom lost their seats in the parliamentary elections.

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