Battle of opposition titans begins in France after Sarkozy return
"The match has begun," French political veteran Alain Juppe said Sunday after his rival and ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy announced his comeback, as the battle for supremacy over the country's beleaguered opposition kicked off, AFP reports.
Both centre-right heavyweights, keen to put behind the in-fighting and scandals that have stopped the opposition UMP party from mounting a credible fight against the unpopular Socialist government, are set to go head-to-head over the next few years with their sights firmly set on the 2017 general election.
Francois Fillon, who was prime minister during Sarkozy's five-year term, is also wading into the battle as he also vies for a chance to be the main opposition presidential candidate in 2017.
"I know that today the match has begun," the 69-year-old Juppe told a programme broadcast on Europe 1 radio and on i-Tele television, just two days after Sarkozy ended months of speculation with a Facebook announcement he was returning to politics.
"Some are trying to make people believe that I will not go through with this. Well I'm going to prove it. You will see in 2016 and 2017."
Sarkozy, who inspires disdain and adoration in equal measure, will be standing for the UMP presidency in November and is due to go live on television Sunday evening to explain his plans for France after more than two years outside politics.
Meanwhile Juppe, a onetime prime minister who served as defence and foreign minister under Sarkozy, has already said he will stand in the UMP's presidential primaries in 2016, as has Fillon.
"It's not about saviours for me, it's about ideas," Fillon told supporters Sunday, in a thinly-veiled allusion to Sarkozy, whose comeback is perceived by some as the only way to re-unite a party that has fallen far from its glory days.
Sarkozy to reform party
The former president himself, in an interview with the JDD weekly on Sunday, lashed out at his two main rivals, pointing to Juppe's age and past conviction for graft and to Fillon's inability to take leadership of the UMP during his absence.
"I read that a third of people are interested in my return," the 59-year-old, who himself is directly or indirectly involved in a tangled web of graft investigations, was quoted as saying.
"That's 20 million people. How well would (President Francois) Hollande, Juppe or Fillon score if the same question was asked of them?"
In the interview, he said he would completely reform the struggling UMP party if elected as its head in late November.
"I am going to change the name of the party, put in place a new organisation, install a new generation of people and bring back members and donors to straighten out the accounts," he was quoted as saying.
"If I succeed in this new group, they (Juppe and Fillon) will not be able to catch up with me."
'A long march'
The battle for opposition supremacy comes at a time when France is mired in a deep economic and political crisis, with Hollande's popularity at record lows.
Sarkozy is expected to be crowned the head of his UMP party with little resistance in November.
But looking ahead to a possible presidential run in 2017, he has a much longer row to hoe.
Polls suggest Juppe is the favourite among the French even if Sarkozy remains the most popular within his own camp.
And a myriad of ongoing legal investigations that involve Sarkozy in one form or another are still lurking in the background.
He was charged in July with corruption and influence-peddling related to his alleged attempt to interfere in a judicial case.
There are also legal questions around the financing of his 2007 and 2012 campaigns that could come back to bite him.
"It's a long march that begins," Sarkozy said in his interview.