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Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2013-05-10

Former French prime minister François Fillon (pictured) has once again exposed bitter divisions within the country's main opposition UMP party after announcing he would run in the 2017 presidential race 'whatever happens'.

Former French prime minister François Fillon announced on Thursday he would run in France’s next presidential elections 'no matter what', raising fears of a showdown between him and former president Nicolas Sarkozy that could prove disastrous for their divided Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) opposition party.

“I'll be a candidate no matter what,” Fillon told reporters in Tokyo after accepting the Order of the Rising Sun, one of Japan’s highest honours. Later, the former PM tried to clarify that he was determined to be a candidate in the UMP’s presidential primaries, via a message on his Twitter account.

Nevertheless, Fillon’s bold announcement from Japan has escalated the already simmering tensions in Paris to boiling point. The conservative UMP has recently struggled with rival factions within its ranks, and it now appears headed for a bruising battle to determine who will challenge President François Hollande, a Socialist, for the Republic’s highest office in 2017.

Sarkozy has enjoyed a bounce in approval ratings since he failed to win re-election last year, with many of his supporters literally pleading for his return. The ex-president has himself hinted that he may be “forced” to abandon his past pledge to exit politics.

“I would prefer that [Fillon] concentrate on opposing the current government, that he addresses the economic problems we are facing, rather than talking about 2017,” said MP Patrick Balkany, a close ally of Nicolas Sarkozy, on Friday.

“I get the impression that Mr. Fillon is a little more concerned with his own career than what is going on in France,” Balkany added. “I meet a lot of people, and they always say ‘Nicolas, come back!’ but I never hear ‘François Fillon, come back!’.”

Recent opinion polls in France show Sarkozy has larger support among right-wing sympathisers than both Fillon and UMP president François Copé.

Copé, who himself was locked in a bitter duel with Fillon over the leadership of the party last year, has said he would step down as a presidential candidate if Sarkozy ever decided to launch a new bid for the Elysée Palace.

But Fillon has repeatedly failed to show the same deference to his former boss.

In a widely discussed documentary aired Wednesday on France 3 television, Fillon revealed he had often disagreed with Sarkozy as prime minister, namely over handling of the recession that rocked global markets in 2008, as well as the sensitive issue of how to deal with France’s then-surging far-right National Front.

While Fillon’s announcement on Thursday was perceived by many as yet another challenge to an eventual Sarkozy comeback, many wrote it off as simply too premature.

Some compared it to the defiant announcement by Socialist leader Michel Rocard in 1980 that he would run for president the following year. But only months later Rocard was forced to concede the nomination to party chief François Mitterrand.

Before the presidential race, France will hold mayoral, regional and Senate elections, as well as a ballot for the European Parliament. UMP president Copé insisted that the result of those contests will be much more important in determining the party’s nomination in 2017.

Date created : 2013-05-10


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