PARIS (Reuters) - Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy has put a faltering comeback back on track by steering his conservatives to victory over the far-right National Front in local elections, but major obstacles remain to his presidential ambitions.
Sunday’s results in the first round of voting mean his UMP party is well placed to make sweeping gains in the March 29 run-off for councillors in France’s “departements”, at the cost of President Francois Hollande’s Socialists.
That will silence critics who had written off Sarkozy’s comeback only four months after he emerged from retirement, pointing to policy bickering in the UMP and surveys which show even right-leaning voters are not sure they want him back.
“Advantage Sarkozy”, Le Parisien daily wrote on its front page with a smiling Sarkozy on its cover. “For his first electoral test since his comeback, the UMP leader has pulled it off.”
But his victory came partly thanks to a fragile alliance with centrist parties well removed from his tough line on issues such as immigration and national identity. This means questions remain as to how the UMP will position itself for the 2017 presidential election - and who will be its candidate.
“It’s not in the bag for Sarkozy,” Jerome Fourquet of pollster Ifop said. “The UMP will still be hit by tensions and divisions between those who want a more right-wing line and those who want alliances to the center.
The UMP and its allies together took just over 29 percent of Sunday’s vote, ahead of Marine Le Pen’s National Front on 25 percent and the Socialists on 22 percent.
But the UMP tally was boosted by candidates of the centrist UDI and MoDem parties. While there was no official score for the UMP alone, it would have been at least a few percentage points less without them - as Le Pen pointed out on Sunday night.
It is not Sarkozy but ex-prime minister Alain Juppe, a rival for the UMP presidential ticket, who has pushed hardest to bring the party closer to middle-of-the-road voters through such alliances. Sarkozy’s strategy has been to lure far-right voters back into the UMP fold.
“Sarkozy is trying to make this appear as his victory,” said analyst Thomas Guenole, an expert on the French right. “But in fact it is the Juppe line which has which won.”
Before his defeat by Hollande in the 2012 presidential election, Sarkozy was known for his aggressive style and strong hold on his party. However, he had failed in the past few months to garner the enthusiasm he expected within the UMP and opinion polls have also shown he was struggling to convince.
Only 40 percent of right-wing voters want Sarkozy, who is also dogged by various legal cases, to run for the 2017 presidential election, one survey showed last month. This was down from 62 percent in July 2014 while he was in retirement.
Juppe, now 69 and until now known for being forced to drop unpopular welfare reforms in the 1990s, has shaped an elder statesman image for himself which works well with voters - who in one recent poll made him France’s most popular politician.
Assuming the UMP capitalizes on the first round and wins a majority of departements next Sunday, the next test for Sarkozy is a party congress in May where he wants to re-launch the party with a new name and start rebuilding its platform for 2017.
In recent weeks he has signaled a line promoting national identity, controversially suggesting that a ban on wearing veils in schools should be extended to universities and by opposing alternative choices in school canteens when pork is on the menu.
Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry and Lucien Libert; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Mark John and David Stamp