PARIS (Reuters) - Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy wants to rechristen his UMP party “The Republicans” - but more as part of a calculated bid to consolidate his own political comeback than in homage to similarly-named fellow U.S. conservatives.
Sarkozy, who was ousted by Francois Hollande in 2012, came out of retirement last year and is tipped to seek the ticket of his party to stand as president in 2017 elections. He was named UMP chairman last November and promised to help it end years of internal disputes and combat France’s resurgent far-right.
While any name-change must be approved by a party congress on May 30, sources close to Sarkozy confirmed to Reuters his preference was for the title “Les Republicains”, a reference to France’s Fifth Republic founded 57 years ago.
“For me the era of acronyms is over,” Sarkozy told weekly Journal du Dimanche this week of a party whose name UMP (“Union for a Popular Movement”) in 2002 stemmed from a merger of the old RPR (“Rally for the Republic”) with other smaller parties.
“It’s high time we stood up for the values of the Republic rather than destroying them,” he added, listing them as “work, responsibility, authority, merit, effort, secularism, progress and, of course, liberty”.
Sarkozy’s rivals for the party’s 2017 ticket - among them ex-prime ministers Alain Juppe and Francois Fillon - have so far given the initiative a lukewarm reception.
Ascribing such values to the Republic is a move critics say is an attempt by Sarkozy to put his brand of social conservatism squarely in the foreground. He has, for example, signaled his desire to widen an existing ban on wearing the Islamic veil and insists recipients of social benefits should work for them.
Left-wing daily La Liberation called the proposed name-change a “semantic hold-up” while finance minister and senior Socialist Michel Sapin said it was disingenuous as many French of all political persuasions could call themselves Republicans.
“The name may change but the man himself certainly hasn’t,” he told French radio of the 60-year-old Sarkozy, whose abrasive political style came to the fore in attempts by European leaders to allay the region’s post-2009 sovereign debt crisis.
Changing the UMP’s name would have a number of advantages, notably enabling it to re-brand itself after a torrid few years that have included bitter leadership rows and investigations into suspected funding irregularities.
It would also be a strike at the far-right National Front of Marine Le Pen, whose anti-immigrant stance is widely rejected by the French political mainstream as being opposed to the core values of tolerance of the Republic.
Writing by Mark John; editing by John Irish