February 14, 2016 / 3:32 PM / 2 years ago

Sarkozy party rivals challenge re-election bid, snub speech

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, head of France's Les Republicains political party, speaks on the second day of his party's national council in Paris, France, February 14, 2016. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen

PARIS (Reuters) - Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy faced growing opposition on Sunday in his own party to his bid to return to power next year, with three leading rivals snubbing a major speech and a fourth joining the race.

Before officials of his Republicans party, Sarkozy - who has not yet declared his candidacy - outlined a program of curbing immigration and cutting taxes that he wants as the conservative party’s platform for the 2017 presidential election.

But the main declared hopefuls - former prime ministers Alain Juppe and Francois Fillon and ex-agriculture minister Bruno Le Maire - were conspicuously absent. They have already said they would not be bound by Sarkozy’s policy proposals.

Another rival, former party leader Jean-Francois Cope, chose Sunday to announce that he would also run in the party’s primary election in November to choose its candidate for president.

In a further sign of dissatisfaction in the ranks, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a former prime minister and party heavyweight, announced that he was backing Juppe.

Sarkozy, who was president from 2007 to 2012 when he lost his reelection bid to Socialist Francois Hollande, urged his party to unite in the face of a strong challenge from far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen.

“It would be unacceptable for us to be divided at a time when the National Front is so strong,” said Sarkozy, who began his political comeback in 2014 by winning election as leader of the UMP party, which he renamed The Republicans.

But Raffarin suggested Sarkozy was ignoring his own advice. “I have told Nicolas Sarkozy his strategy was too divisive,” he told BFM TV. “I prefer someone who tries to unite.”

Some 48 percent of conservative voters think Juppe - who has also been foreign and defense minister in various governments - would be the party’s best candidate in 2017 versus only 20 percent for Sarkozy, a BVA poll published on Saturday showed.

Sarkozy’s policy proposals were staunchly conservative, including an overhaul of labor laws, construction of more jails and tightened border controls. He also spoke of France’s Christian roots, a code phrase for a strict line against any concessions to demands from its large Muslim minority.

The former president plans to put the proposals to a vote of all party members in April.

Sarkozy has not officially announced his candidacy for 2017 but Raffarin said he should not be ruled out: “We should not under-estimate Nicolas Sarkozy’s potential, neither his intelligence nor his capacity to rebound.”

Asked why he would not be present to listen to Sarkozy’s policy speech, rival Le Maire told BFM TV: “I want to spend Valentine’s Day with my wife and children.” Juppe also invoked “family reasons”.

Additional reporting by Sophie Louet, Geert de Clercq and Marine Pennetier; Editing by Tom Heneghan

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