Sarkozy succession becomes two-horse race

The battle to succeed former president Nicolas Sarkozy at the head of France's main centre-right party came down to a two-horse race on Tuesday after former minister Bruno Le Maire announced he would not stand.

Sarkozy succession becomes two-horse race
European People's Party

Le Maire's withdrawal left Francois Fillon, Sarkozy's prime minister throughout Sarkozy's five-year term, and Jean-Francois Cope, the acting leader of the UMP, as the only two remaining candidates.

Sarkozy stepped down as leader of the UMP party after losing to Socialist rival Francois Hollande in the presidential election in May and nominations to succeed him were due by a deadline of 1800 GMT on Tuesday.

The battle between the two leading candidates has underlined the extent to which Sarkozy remains the dominant figure on the French right, with Fillon accusing Cope of professing a new-found love for the former president, whose son Jean has appeared to back Cope by hosting a meeting for his supporters.

Cope said recently he would step aside if Sarkozy decided to return to frontline politics and contest the next presidential election in 2017.

That prompted a sideswipe from Fillon. "The truth is that Sarkoism is a bit like love, there are those who speak a lot about it because they have reason to do so," he said.

"Their love is fairly recent while there are others who over the years" can prove their love, he said. Candidates required nearly 8,000 nominations from party members to be eligible for the contest. 

Le Maire narrowly failed to meet the threshold but may still be a candidate for the presidency in five years time.

Xavier Bertrand, a former labour minister, did get the nominations required but decided not to stand. He is also seen as a possible presidential candidate but, like Cope, has said he will not go up against Sarkozy.

Whoever heads the party will have a strong influence over how policy evolves over the next five years in opposition and will have to heal a party bruised by Sarkozy's defeat.

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Failure for Fillon: How the one-time hot favourite watched his campaign collapse

French conservative candidate Francois Fillon was one of the early favourites to become president, but his hopes of playing on his experience to win votes collapsed as a fake jobs scandal engulfed his campaign.

Failure for Fillon: How the one-time hot favourite watched his campaign collapse
Photo: AFP

The former prime minister was charged in March with misuse of public funds over the employment of his British-born wife Penelope as a parliamentary assistant for 15 years.

READ ALSO: Fillon's wife Penelope charged over fake jobs scandal 

It was a severe blow to the 63-year-old, who clinched the nomination for the Republicans party — France's main centre-right party — in November by presenting himself as unsullied by the scandals that surrounded his rival and former boss, ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy.

The allegations that Penelope had earned €680,000 for a fictional role were first reported by Le Canard Enchainé newspaper in January.

Fillon's reaction was to strongly deny that either he or his wife had done anything wrong and to claim his left-wing rivals were operating a “secret cell” to blacken his name.

It was a response that drew scorn from Socialist President Francois Hollande and surprised even some of Fillon's allies.

After backtracking on an early promise to withdraw his candidacy if he was charged, Fillon found himself in the unlikely position of running as an anti-establishment rebel determined to defy the government, magistrates and
the media he said were working against him.

Subsequent revelations that a wealthy French-Lebanese lawyer bought handmade suits for Fillon worth €13,000 each drew further ire from his opponents.

In the end he trailed home in the first round of the election behind projected winners Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, a result his campaign coordinator admitted was a “huge disappointment”.

'Iron-fisted' approach

Fillon's policy offer was based on deep cuts in public spending and slashing hundreds of thousands of jobs from France's bloated civil service.

He also proposed attacking one of the sacred cows of the French left, the 35-hour working week, raising it to 39 hours.

A leaner, meaner France could, he argued, rival Germany as the foremost economy in the eurozone within a decade.

In TV debates, Fillon stressed that of all the candidates only he had experience of running the country.

In the wake of the killing of a policeman on Paris's Champs Elysees avenue on Thursday, he said that for years, “I have been warning that we are facing an Islamic totalitarianism” and promised an “iron-fisted” approach.

His outspokenness stood in contrast to his image as prime minister, of a quiet and urbane man whose steady temperament contrasted with the impulsive Sarkozy who once dismissed him as “Mr Nobody”.

Once the youngest member of parliament at age 27, the devoutly Catholic Fillon voted against gay marriage when it was legalised in 2013.

The self-declared “Gaullist” — a form of nationalism that proposes an independent and strong France — also has a close bond with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The two men overlapped as prime ministers from 2008-2012 and their closeness led to questions about Fillon's foreign policy.

Country manor

Fillon and his Welsh wife met at university in France when they were in their early twenties.

They soon married and live in an imposing manor house near Le Mans in northern France where they brought up their five children.

Two of their children have also had paid work for their father in parliament, performing roles as “legal advisors” despite not being qualified lawyers at the time.

Penelope was until recently a low-key political wife, a keen horse-rider who once described herself as a country “peasant” who preferred the countryside to Paris.

READ ALSO: Who is Penelope Fillon?

In examining Fillon's insistence that his wife has “always” worked to help his career, French media homed in on previous comments she made.

“Until now, I have never got involved in my husband's political life,” Penelope told regional newspaper Le Bien Public last year.

READ ON: Full coverage of French Presidential Election 2017