Nicolas Sarkozy returns: Former French President claims 'little victory' as UMP party leader but Alain Juppé is real winner

Mr Sarkozy was counting on a crushing victory, not just a comfortable one

John Lichfield
Sunday 30 November 2014 19:25

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy faces an uphill battle to return to the Elysée Palace after a less than brilliant victory in the leadership election of his centre-right party at the weekend.

Thirty months after his defeat in the 2012 presidential elections, Mr Sarkozy had counted on returning to fervent acclamation, like Napoleon after he escaped from Elba in 1815. He took 64.5 per cent of the vote in an online poll but this was almost universally interpreted on Sunday as a reverse – like getting two cheers instead of three.

And there was more bad news. A devastating opinion poll by IFOP for the Journal du Dimanche suggested that only 16 per cent of French voters thought that Mr Sarkozy provided a “serious” answer to the nation’s problems.

Just 10 per cent regarded him as “honest” and 18 per cent as “likeable”. The tangle of 12 different ongoing criminal investigations surrounding Mr Sarkozy’s finances have evidently taken their toll.

The same poll made more cheerful reading for the former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Alain Juppé, who is Mr Sarkozy’s great rival for the centre-right “nomination” for the 2017 presidential election. Mr Juppé lost out to Mr Sarkozy on “dynamism” and “courage” but scored 53 per cent for “seriousness”, 38 per cent for “honesty” and 43 per cent for “likeability”.

In his first test since he abandoned his self-imposed retirement and returned to politics in September, Mr Sarkozy, 59, was comfortably elected on Saturday as president of France’s main opposition party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP). He was counting, however, on a crushing victory, not just a comfortable one.

The last time he stood for the UMP leadership 10 years ago, Mr Sarkozy won the votes of 85 per cent of party members – putting him on course for his victory in the 2007 presidential elections. His supporters hoped for a score of at least 70 per cent on Saturday to give Mr Sarkozy the freedom to rebuild, and rename the UMP as his personal bandwagon for an assault on the Elysée.

French newspapers and political commentators were almost unanimous yesterday in suggesting that the poll was a defeat-in-victory for Mr Sarkozy. Le Monde said: “His little victory means that he has not crushed all opposition in the campaign which will now begin for the [centre-right] primary in 2016.”

The poll was therefore a de facto victory for Mr Juppé, who was not even running. It was also a triumph for a rising star of French politics, the former Agriculture Minister, Bruno Le Maire, 45. He took 29.18 per cent of the UMP vote, making him an outside bet for the presidency in 2017 and a likely choice for Prime Minister under a Juppé, or Sarkozy presidency.

The third candidate, Hervé Mariton, an Anglophile right-winger, took only 6.32 per cent.

When the result was announced, Mr Juppe, 69, said drily: “Habemus Papam” (We have a Pope) – the words used when the College of Cardinals elects a new pontiff.

He went on to suggest, however, that Mr Sarkozy, should not regard himself as all powerful or infallible. He said: “I am prepared to help him towards the objectives I have indicated: a broad alliance of the right and centre.”

During his energetic but sometimes surprisingly stumbling campaign, Mr Sarkozy made it clear that he wanted to abandon the centre ground and push the UMP to the right on immigration, taxation and employment policy.

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