PARIS, Feb 8 (AFP) – Just over a week after his conviction for political fraud, former French prime minister Alain Juppe was given a triumphant reception Sunday as he launched the ruling Union for a Popular Movement’s (UMP) campaign for regional elections in March.
To the sound of blaring techno music, 11,000 delegates at a UMP congress in Paris gave their party president a 10-minute standing ovation. Placards read “Juppe – we love you,” and many wore T-shirts bearing the disgraced leader’s name.
Juppe, 58, was found guilty on January 30 of illegally paying party officials with Paris municipal funds between 1988 and 1995 when his political mentor President Jacques Chirac was mayor of the capital.
Given an 18-month suspended prison term and a 10-year ban on elected office, he appealed against the sentence and announced on Tuesday that he will stay in politics pending a new court hearing in a year. However he also said he plans to step down from the UMP presidency in November.
His decision not to resign straight away spared the ruling centre-right party the immediate prospect of a leadership contest to find his replacement, but with just six weeks to go to the regional polls it lay the UMP open to charges from the left-wing opposition that it believes it is above the law.
A survey Sunday showed that a majority of French thinks Juppe should have left his posts, which also include a seat in the National Assembly and the mayorship of the southwestern city of Bordeaux. Some 55 percent did not wish him to have a political role against 42 percent who did, according to the IFOP poll in Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper.
The same poll showed that of the candidates to replace him in November, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy is by far the favourite among both the general public and UMP voters. Sarkozy, who has made no secret of his ambition to replace Chirac as French president, was nearly 20 points ahead of his nearest rival.
Sunday’s congress at the Porte de Versailles exhibition centre was supposed to concentrate on the campaign for the regional elections, which take place in two rounds on Sundays March 21 and 28, but was dominated instead by appeals for party unity in the search for a replacement for Juppe.
“I ask you to do everything, each of you at your posts, to make sure the election (of my successor) is an occasion not for sterile arguments and premature competition, but for the tightening and reinforcement of the UMP,” Juppe said.
Control of the party is seen as a first step to a bid for the French presidency at elections due in 2007, but Chirac loyalists are deeply opposed to Sarkozy and may seek an alternative candidate to replace Juppe, who was Chirac’s own chosen successor.
The government fears it will do badly in the regional elections, as voters deliver a mid-term reprimand to the centre-right. A new success has been widely predicted for the far-right National Front, which can use the Juppe affair as ammunition for its campaign against corruption in the ruling elite.
Subject: France news