November 7, 2014 / 8:14 PM / in 3 years

Sarkozy urges French center-right to re-invent itself

French former president Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a speech at a campaign rally for the leadership of the UMP political party in Paris, November 7, 2014. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

PARIS (Reuters) - Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, back in politics after a two-year retirement, announced plans on Friday to revamp his center-right UMP party if named this month as its chairman.

Sarkozy, beaten by Socialist Francois Hollande in the 2012 presidential election, wants to go on to secure the UMP ticket for the next contest in 2017. But his comeback is being clouded by several legal cases involving him and the party.

Speaking to several thousand supporters at a rally in Paris, Sarkozy said that as chairman he would push for the 12-year-old UMP (“Union for a Popular Movement”) to start from scratch and unite people with similar ideas.

“Those parties where everyone thinks the same, hung up on the old divisions of 50 years ago and where the leadership decides and the grass roots follow - that’s finished,” he said.

The UMP was originally created in 2002 as a merger of several parties with the goal of reuniting the French center-right. But the party faces policy divisions, notably over whether France should accept a deeper European Union.

Sarkozy is favorite to win a Nov. 29 ballot of the UMP’s 268,000 members to chair the party against two less high-profile rivals. But anything short of a landslide victory will mean the race to win the UMP presidential ticket remains wide open.

He faces competition for that from two former prime ministers, Alain Juppé and Francois Fillon. Some Sarkozy backers have acknowledged that his emergence from retirement in September has not created the buzz they had expected.

One recent poll even showed that the veteran Juppé, who if successful would be 71 by the time he entered the Elysee Palace, was narrowly the favorite among UMP supporters for president.

Since leaving power, Sarkozy has faced a welter of legal cases ranging from influence-peddling to illegal party funding. He denies all wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a politically-motivated plot to halt his comeback.

Pollsters say that Sarkozy remains a divisive figure for the French. He has said he will cut corporate taxes and seek to win back voters from the resurgent far-right National Front.

“To be a French citizen you must adopt the French way of life, accept the rules of the French Republic and wed yourself to its language and culture,” he said to huge cheers from supporters for his defense of French national identity.

Reporting by Mark John; editing by John Irish and Gareth Jones

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