Sarkozy tipped to lead party in first step back to presidency
First the dramatic comeback, then the frenzied campaign, and now France's ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy is limbering up for his potential springboard back into office: the leadership of his right-wing UMP party.
Pollsters expect the 59-year-old to sail through a vote on Saturday to head his bitterly divided party despite his much-heralded return to politics largely seen as having fallen flat.
However even if he wins the leadership of the UMP, Sarkozy is still not guaranteed a shot at toppling the deeply unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande in presidential elections in 2017.
The vote, which pits him against main rival Bruno Le Maire -- a former minister and senior party figure -- and lawmaker Herve Mariton, merely puts Sarkozy on the starting blocks.
"There are still a lot of people out there who cannot stomach the man, which is partly why (President Francois) Hollande was elected," said Andrew Knapp, an expert in French politics at Britain's University of Reading.
"But Sarkozy I think has grasped this brutal logic that getting hold of a party may not guarantee you the presidency, but not getting hold of the party almost rules you out."
A recent poll by the Odoxa research institute showed that Sarkozy was the preferred candidate for 65 percent of UMP supporters, even if the majority thought Le Maire had run a better campaign.
The son of a Hungarian immigrant has as many devotees as rivals in the deeply split party.
The UMP is currently run by a trio of former prime ministers after former leader Jean-Francois Cope was forced to resign in May over a campaign funding scandal linked to Sarkozy's last election bid.
Deeply unpopular at the time of his 2012 election defeat and known as the "bling-bling" president for his flashy style, Sarkozy is hoping to capitalise on the fact that his "Mr Normal" successor Hollande is now even more disliked by French voters than he was.
Knapp said Sarkozy's bid for the presidency is "partly an act of revenge for a defeat which he has never fully accepted".
- From primary to president? -
The real battle comes when Sarkozy will have to fight off party heavyweights at UMP primaries due in 2016.
Chief among these is his former colleague turned arch-foe Alain Juppe, a popular politician and one-time prime minister who served as defence and then foreign minister under Sarkozy.
Knapp said that while Juppe was "one of the most popular politicians in France, as long as he hasn't got the party behind him, he may well not hack it".
While the 2017 presidential election is still a long way off, the stakes at play in the UMP battle are high.
"Whoever wins the primary, is practically the next president of the republic," said Dominique Reynie, of the Foundation for Political Innovation, a think-tank close to the UMP.
With Hollande's unpopular Socialist government taking a whipping in opinion polls, the 2017 election is likely to be a race between the UMP candidate and far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen.
For Le Pen, the messy state of mainstream parties is the gift that keeps on giving: a recent poll showed she would win the first round of voting with 30 percent.
"We should not lose sight of the fact that at the moment the leading candidate is Marine Le Pen," said Knapp.
For Sarkozy, the presidency also offers immunity from prosecution for a tangle of legal woes in which he has always denied wrongdoing.
"That raises other questions. Can Sarkozy really run a presidential campaign over the next two-and a-half years while periodically receiving summonses?" asked Knapp.
"The party faithful seem to have decided that no matter what judges throw at him, Sarkozy is their darling. I don't think that is true of the wider electorate."
© 2014 AFP