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Les Républicains struggle to show unity as presidential primary heats up

France 2 | Jean-François Copé announces he is joining Les Républicains primary during a television interview on February 14, 2016

Former party chief Jean-François Copé on Sunday announced he was joining Les Républicains presidential primary, in a fresh challenge to former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s bid to storm back into the Elysée Palace next year.


Copé, who was forced to step down as the leader of conservative Les Républicains (formally UMP) in 2014 over allegations of campaign fraud, told France 2 television he was “ready” to be a candidate in the already crowded primary field.

Last week judges decided not to press charges against him in connection to illegal spending in Sarkozy’s failed 2012 presidential campaign. Copé has maintained his innocence in the so-called Bygmalion scandal, lamenting that he was designated the “perfect culprit” in the affair.

On Sunday he denied his primary bid was payback against fellow party members who cut him loose after the scandal erupted two years ago. “No way. My opponents are the Socialist Party, the National Front”, the former party boss said in reference to France’s ruling left-wing party and the opposition far-right camp.

It has nevertheless been difficult to ignore festering animosity between Copé and other leading figures in Les Républicains, nine months before the party picks its presidential nominee.

Only minutes before Copé declared his candidacy on France 2, Sarkozy admitted on rival television network TF1 that “uniting” the fractured party would be “difficult, but necessary” to win France’s general election in 2017.

Sarkozy, who recently published a new book explaining the shortfalls of his 2007-2012 presidency, is widely expected to be on the ballot for the two-round primary scheduled for November 20 and 27.

Seven and counting

Opinion polls in France show that Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppé, who was also the country’s prime minister between 1995 and 1997 under Jacques Chirac, is the current frontrunner in Les Républicains primary.

A survey published by French polling firm BVA a day before Copé joined the race revealed that Juppé was on pace to win a whopping 48 percent of votes among right-wing constituents. Sarkozy trailed Juppé with 20 percent of votes, while his ex-prime minister François Fillon registered 11 percent support.

Besides those political heavyweights, the list of candidates also counts a handful of likely also-rans. They include lawmakers Hervé Mariton and Frédéric Lefebvre, former Sarkozy family minister and current European MP Nadine Morano, and former MP and Christian Democratic Party leader Jean-Frédéric Poisson.

An eventual Sarkozy candidacy remains the big question as the conservative primary sets sail, but two other expected entries could also make waves. Bruno Le Maire, who finished a strong third in elections for the party’s presidency in November 2014, and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who ran an unsuccessful bid to become Paris mayor in 2014, have made it clear they will throw their hats in the ring.

Presidential hopefuls have until September 5 to officially declare their candidacy in the primary that could also include members of the centrist UDI party.

Conspicuously absent

While France’s Socialist Party organised primaries in 1995, 2006 and 2011, the process is a novel one for Les Républicains or its predecessor parties, with some members warning candidates to avoid a “fratricidal war”.

The party has struggled with internal divisions, notably since Sarkozy lost the 2012 elections, and the primary could once more test its ability to forge a united front against the incumbent Socialists.

Primary candidates Juppé, Fillon, as well as Bruno Le Maire, were notably absent for the closing ceremony of Les Républicains national conference over the weekend – preferring to skip the event rather than show deference to Sarkozy, running the event as the party’s president.

“This is a glimpse of the future of the suddenly crowded right-wing primary,” regional newspaper La Nouvelle République wrote on Sunday in reference to the conference’s attendance problems. “The campaign has just started and already it looks like a noisy battle between tribal chiefs”.

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