The UMP is dead. Long live the Republicans. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy scored a victory in his circuitous return to power when his centre-right party agreed overwhelmingly to change its name to Les Républicains.
Senior figures within the party, including Mr Sarkozy’s chief rival Alain Juppé, had resisted the change and forced a secret ballot of the 213,000 members of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP).
The result of the vote, announced at a “refounding” party conference in Paris, accepted Mr Sarkozy’s proposed name change by 83 per cent to 17 per cent, though participation in the electronic vote was only about 45 per cent.
The rebranding of the UMP – continuing a bewildering series of post-war names changes for the French right – is part of Mr Sarkozy’s strategy to create a personal bandwagon for the 2017 presidential elections.
In other respects, however, the political resurrection of the former president is not going well. An opinion poll last week suggested that Mr Sarkozy would lose a projected “open presidential primary” of the centre-right next year.
Centre-right supporters said – by 55 per cent to 45 per cent – that they would prefer the former prime minister and mayor of Bordeaux, Alain Juppé, to be the main challenger to President François Hollande. Another poll by Odoxa for Le Parisien suggested that 72 per cent of all French voters did not want Mr Sarkozy to make another run for the presidency.
The polls reflect Mr Sarkozy’s growing legal difficulties, including a recent appeal court decision which confirmed a formal accusation against him of bribery and influence-peddling
The ex-president has plenty of time to recover. Members decided that the first centre-right primary in French political history – open to all voters, and not only party members – would be held in November of next year.
Over the next 17 months, Mr Sarkozy hopes to rebrand himself as well as his party. But old habits die hard.
The ex-UMP, now Les Républicains, are deeply in debt, largely because of illegal overspending on Mr Sarkozy’s failed 2012 re-election campaign. The 20,000 delegates to the conference at the Porte de la Villette in Paris were told that they must bring their own sandwiches.
This was part of a drive to reduce the cost of the conference to €550,000 (£399,000), compared with the €7m spent 11 years ago when Mr Sarkozy was anointed as UMP leader for the first time. The former president insists that he has learnt from his mistakes in the Elysée Palace and is no longer the brash, self-absorbed man who annoyed many of his own former supporters.
It emerged last week, however, that austerity within the party does not apply to Mr Sarkozy himself. The television channel Canal Plus revealed that he had spent €3,200 of the party’s money to take a private jet the 120 miles from Paris to Le Havre for a political rally last Tuesday.
The cost of a first-class, two-hour return train journey would have been about €100. His party-funded chauffeur-driven car could have made the trip in the same time for about the same cost.
One anti-Sarkozy politician within the party commented: “He risks being seen as a new Marie-Antoinette. It is as if he was saying ‘Let them eat sandwiches, while I live in luxury.’”
Why abandon the title UMP? Officially, Mr Sarkozy wants to deprive the far-right Front National of one of its favourite jibes – lumping together the UMP with the ruling Parti Socialiste (PS) as the “UMPS”. Less officially, Sarkozy supporters admit that the UMP “brand” has been tarnished by a series of schisms and financial scandals.
Some opponents within the party said that the new name sounded “too American”. Others complained that it was presumptuous to claim sole ownership of France’s “republican values” of liberty, equality and fraternity.
An emergency legal challenge on those grounds by left-wing politicians was rejected last week but has still to be considered fully by judges.
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