Returning from the political wilderness, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has taken a big step toward a possible re-election bid by winning the leadership of the country’s main conservative party.
Sarkozy had been widely expected to win the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) leadership in the vote by party members on Saturday. The 59-year-old Gaullist collected 64.5 percent of the vote to defeat former government ministers Bruno Le Maire and Herve Mariton, a margin that some analysts said was below expectations.
Still, the victory advances Sarkozy’s hopes of running in the 2017 presidential race and cements his return to the political scene after all but disappearing following his loss to French President Francois Hollande in the presidential election more than two years ago.
The party is to choose its presidential nominee in two years.
Sarkozy has used the UMP leadership as a springboard before: He also won it in 2004 — with 85 percent of the vote — and built a ground game that helped propel him to victory in the presidential race three years later.
For the presidential nomination in 2016, he faces two likely rivals: former French prime ministers Francois Fillon and Alain Juppe, who was a long-time ally and protege of former French president Jacques Chirac.
The two potential rivals, both seen as more even-tempered than the explosive Sarkozy, were not vying for the party leadership.
Conservatives are sharpening their political knives. Polls show Hollande is the least-popular French leader in modern history, largely for failed promises to bring down France’s double-digit unemployment rate.
The UMP, like Hollande, has had its own troubles. Saturday’s vote was necessary because the previous party head, Jean-Francois Cope, resigned this year in a scandal involving party funds. Before that, Cope had won the party leadership by a razor-thin margin that sparked a particularly nasty bout of intra-party bickering.
In sober remarks on Twitter after his victory, Sarkozy called for party unity, credited his rivals for a “dignified” campaign and thanked party electors for providing “the best answer to two years of internal quarreling and division.”
The UMP will also have to refine its strategy against the newest force in French politics: the far-right National Front party, which has gained momentum amid a lackluster economy and has fanned fears about immigration.
Sarkozy, a former minister of the interior, used a tough-on-crime image to siphon support from the far-right ahead of his previous presidential win.
As a former president, Sarkozy simply outgunned his rivals in Saturday’s vote in star power. He has the persona of shoot-from-the-hip political brawler.
During his presidency, he took France to war against then-Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s forces, and was chummy with former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and former US president George W. Bush, but eventually lost favor with many voters over his extravagant lifestyle and close ties with super-rich people.
Several analysts said Sarkozy, to reap a full symbolic impact that could again command broad public support, needed to clear 70 percent of the leadership vote — not just win a majority.
Political scientist Thomas Guenole said any score under that bar would signal “failure” for Sarkozy.
I-Tele television commentator Mickael Darmon said that while Sarkozy did capture the party leadership, “politically, he was not the winner tonight.”
They agreed that the strong performance by Le Maire, who got nearly 30 percent of the vote, was the biggest surprise.
Above all, the result shows Sarkozy is not as inspiring as he once was within the party. He has shown vulnerabilities and is facing legal troubles that have diminished his status as the darling of the mainstream right.
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