France's former president Nicolas Sarkozy easily won the leadership of his conservative UMP party on Saturday in what many think is a first step on his road to a political comeback aimed at winning back the presidency in 2017.
"This election marks a new beginning for our political family. We must be united and devote ourselves to finding new solutions for France," Sarkozy wrote on Facebook shortly after results were announced.
However, political commentators described his score as disappointing for someone hoping to topple the deeply unpopular Socialist President François Hollande in 2017 elections.
Sarkozy, 59, finally revealed the worst-kept secret in French politics in September when he announced his political comeback, presenting himself as the saviour of his bitterly divided conservative opposition party.
"Staying in the background when everything is going so badly would be cowardice, the opposite of my idea of political commitment," Sarkozy told a political meeting on the eve of the vote.
The energetic former leader had criss-crossed the country to drum up support for his candidacy to lead the party, all the while slamming the "mediocrity" of Hollande's deeply unpopular Socialist government.
Pollsters expected Sarkozy to sail through the election despite his much-heralded return to politics largely seen as having fallen flat, with a persistent tangle of legal woes related to campaign financing and influence-peddling – and a few new ones – continuing to drag him down.
However, his victory still does not guarantee him a shot at toppling Hollande in presidential elections in 2017.
Sarkozy has as many devotees as rivals in the deeply divided and debt-ridden party, which was being headed by a trio of former prime ministers appointed after former leader Jean-Francois Copé was forced to resign in May over a campaign funding scandal linked to Sarkozy's 2012 election campaign.
The real battle comes when Sarkozy will have to fight off party heavyweights at UMP primaries due in 2016.
Chief among these is his former colleague turned arch-foe Alain Juppé, a popular politician and former prime minister who served as defence and then foreign minister under Sarkozy.
'An act of revenge'
Deeply unpopular at the time of his 2012 election defeat and known as president "bling-bling" for his flashy style, Sarkozy is hoping to capitalise on the fact that his "Mr Normal" successor Hollande is now even more disliked by French voters than he was.
"There are still a lot of people out there who cannot stomach the man, which is partly why Hollande was elected," said Andrew Knapp, an expert in French politics at Britain's University of Reading.
"But Sarkozy, I think, has grasped this brutal logic that getting hold of a party may not guarantee you the presidency, but not getting hold of the party almost rules you out."
Knapp said Sarkozy's bid for the presidency is "partly an act of revenge for a defeat which he has never fully accepted".
With Hollande's Socialist government taking a whipping in opinion polls, experts say the 2017 election is seen as likely to be a race between the UMP candidate and far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen.
For Le Pen, the messy state of mainstream parties – including deep divisions among the ruling Socialists – is the gift that keeps on giving. A recent poll showed she would win the first round of voting in 2017 with 30 percent.
"We should not lose sight of the fact that at the moment the leading candidate is Marine Le Pen," said Knapp.
For Sarkozy, the presidency also offers immunity from prosecution for the legal troubles he is facing.
"That raises other questions. Can Sarkozy really run a presidential campaign over the next two-and a-half years while periodically receiving summonses?" asked Knapp.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
Date created : 2014-11-29