UMP rallies behind Juppe
PARIS, Feb 4 (AFP) - French President Jacques Chirac's ruling party stepped forward as one Wednesday to back the decision of its leader, former prime minister Alain Juppe, to fight a graft conviction in a case the European press has labelled "Chirac-gate".
Juppe, Chirac’s longtime right-hand man and preferred successor, late Tuesday told national television he would remain in politics pending an appeal of his conviction last week of illegally financing the ruling party, despite previously vowing to stand down.
He said he would stay as head of the conservative Union for a Popular Majority (UMP), member of parliament and mayor of Bordeaux until the challenge was settled – which could take a year.
But he said he would consider handing over the reins of the party’s in the next leadership election in nine months’ time.
“In our way of doing politics, you don’t just leave the key under the door like that, abandoning from one day to the next all the people who say they need you,” Juppe, 58, told the commercial station TF1 in his first public comments since the end of his trial last Friday.
He said the 18-month suspended prison sentence he received and its automatic 10-year ban on him holding public office was “too much,” even if it was clear “I made mistakes.”
The French and European press seized on Juppe’s decision as a sign that Chirac desperately needed his help to protect his own position and to take the heat from the corruption charges, in which the president himself is deeply implicated.
A French court had found Juppe guilty of paying members of Chirac’s party out of Paris municipal funds during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Chirac was mayor of the French capital and Juppe was city hall financial director.
Its sentence is on hold pending the appeal.
The French dailies said Chirac needed his embattled lieutenant to counter the growing threat to his position from Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who has long eclipsed him in the popularity polls.
Sarkozy, 48, has made no secret of his ambition to replace Chirac, 71, as president when the next elections are held in 2007, and would stand a good chance of taking over leadership of the UMP and using it as a launching pad should Juppe step down.
“The strategy of the Chirac-Juppe two-step aims to hold back Sarkozy’s ardour,” the left-wing Liberation newspaper said.
It noted, however, that the plan could well backfire against the UMP in French regional elections next month and in European elections in June.
Despite that, UMP members stepped forward as if choreographed to voice their support for Juppe.
Government spokesman Jean-François Cope said that, pending the appeal, Juppe had to “put the obligations of his function and his mandates before any personal consideration.”
Agriculture Minister Herve Gaymard told RTL radio that he believed Juppe had given “a formidable lesson in class, humanity and dignity” by staying on, while Social Affairs Minister Francois Fillon said Juppe had chosen “the path of duty”.
Le Canard Enchaine, a satirical weekly political newspaper, was sceptical of the coordinated display of solidarity, saying it was all worked up by Chirac.
“Saturate the media and organise a support movement. We’re not going to let him (Juppe) be disembowelled without reacting!” the newspaper quoted Chirac as ordering ministers to do.
But a member of the Socialist opposition, Arnaud Montebourg, highlighted Juppe’s change of mind in deciding to stay in politics.
“He said ‘I will assume my responsibilities’ and he hasn’t assumed them. He said ‘I will step down if the court convicts me’ and he didn’t step down. We all now know the pathetic value of Alain Juppe’s public promises,” he told France Inter radio.
Far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen said “it’s totally shameful that Alain Juppe, sentenced to a dishonourable punishment, pursues his political career as if nothing’s happened, contrary to what he said he’d do.”
Subject: France news