Primary tabs

Political Column: An opposition in tatters

On paper, the re-election of President François Hollande when his five-year term ends in 2017 is all but impossible. Never has a French leader had such low poll ratings for so long.

However, a series of scandals and lawsuits sounding the death knell for his main opposition is there to comfort him. Nicolas Sarkozy, whom Hollande ejected from the Elysée Palace in 2012, was well placed to make a comeback until he was taken into police custody for 15 hours in early July for questioning in one of several cases involving alleged financial misdeeds, leading to an investigation for corruption.

And the party that propelled Sarkozy to power, the Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, has been so besmirched by some of those allegations that its very survival is in doubt. A number of politicians including Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice, have said publicly that the party could disappear. If it does, it will be an ignominious end to a mainstream grouping that claims its inspiration from Charles de Gaulle, the World War II Free French leader and the 1958 founder of the modern Fifth Republic.

Sarkozy, who angrily dismissed the charges against him in a television interview as "grotesque" and suggested that the unprecedented decision to detain a former president was politically orchestrated, has said he wants to run for the post of UMP president later this year, further deepening the likelihood of a split.

François Fillon, who was Sarkozy's prime minister throughout Sarkozy's 2007-2012 term, has cautioned against the party leadership being used as a springboard back into the Elysée, raising the prospect that he may lead his supporters out of the UMP if Sarkozy takes it over. And a staggering one third of UMP supporters told pollsters they thought it was time for the party to disband.

Investigations into the organisation of Sarkozy campaign meetings in 2012 by the Bygmalion events group under the UMP presidency of Jean-François Copé, a bitter Fillon rival, uncovered a system of inflated bills presented by Bygmalion, with the party sometimes paying invoices that should have been covered by official campaign funds. Some senior party figures helped themselves along the way to thousands of euros to pay for private travel or phone bills.

An audit of party finances found that the UMP had paid a 363,615 euro fine levied on Sarkozy arising from his 2012 campaign for spending over the legal limit, which the former president was bound by law to pay in person.

The likely disintegration of the party weakens the conservative right as it should have poised itself for a triumphant return in 2017. In all likelihood, those who break away from the UMP will seek alliances with various centrist groupings to attempt a credible comeback before the 2017 election.

But an example of how to recover can be found in President Hollande himself. He did not come to the fore as serious presidential candidate until Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the leading Socialist presidential hopeful of the time, fell into disgrace over the alleged assault of a chambermaid in a New York hotel in 2010. The remaining two years proved to be ample time for the Socialist Party to find and field a winning candidate. Now, the remnants of France's conservative right face the challenge of doing the same.

Julian Nundy