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French opposition leader Copé 'to quit over Sarkozy funding scandal'

Photo: AFP

France’s main opposition UMP party leader Jean-François Copé will step down on June 15 over potentially illegal campaign funding practices, party sources said Tuesday.

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The conservative party has been rocked by allegations that it used falsified invoices to hide overspending in Nicolas Sarkozy’s unsuccessful re-election bid in 2012.

UMP members, who asked to remain anonymous, told reporters that Copé had agreed to step down within weeks at a crisis meeting in Paris on Tuesday morning.

The entire party’s leadership will also resign, and a party congress to pick new leaders will be scheduled for October, the sources added.

French Senator Gérard Larcher told the AFP news agency that the direction of the party would be taken over in the meantime by “three former prime ministers,” in seeming reference to UMP heavyweights Jean-Pierre Raffarin, Alain Juppé and François Fillon.

The announcement that Copé would quit his post came on the heels of the UMP’s humiliating defeat to France’s far-right National Front party in Sunday’s European elections, and stunning admissions of questionable campaign financing on Monday.

Jérôme Lavrilleux, Sarkozy’s former deputing campaign director, admitted on live television that bills for Sarkozy campaign rallies were passed off as invoices for other UMP party events in order to skirt campaign finance laws.

A litany of headaches for the UMP

The saga is the latest in a series of scandals linking Sarkozy to alleged irregularities in the funding of his electoral campaigns which threaten to wreck his chances of reclaiming the presidency in 2017.

The most serious of them involves allegations that he received undeclared cash from former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Sarkozy was cleared last year of personally accepting envelopes stuffed with cash from France's richest woman, L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, but his former campaign treasurer is still awaiting trial in that case.

The drip of corruption allegations against the UMP has been credited with helping to fuel a surge in support for the far right National Front (FN), which topped the polls in Sunday's European elections with an unprecedented 25 percent share of the vote.

France's constitutional court rapped Sarkozy last year for exceeding campaign spending limits and ordered the party to repay some 10 million euros.

It did so quickly thanks to an energetic collection drive led by Sarkozy that many pundits saw as a reminder of his charisma and strong appeal to voters on the right of France's political spectrum.

As UMP leader, Copé has never fully emerged from Sarkozy's shadow and the party was badly damaged by the protracted and bitter leadership battle he fought with Fillon in 2012.

Fillon said Tuesday that the UMP's "credibility and honour” had been damaged after the European elections debacle, in which the party came second with 20.8 percent of the vote.

Fillon has made no secret of his desire to be a presidential candidate in 2017 even if Sarkozy makes a comeback.

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