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France's Sarkozy returns to political stage in party appeal

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy (C), French UMP political party head Jean-Francois Cope (L) and party member Nadine Morano (R) leave
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy (C), French UMP political party head Jean-Francois Cope (L) and party member Nadine Morano (R) leave

By Catherine Bremer

PARIS (Reuters) - Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy made his first political appearance since losing power, staging an appeal to hundreds of conservative lawmakers on Monday to help save the UMP party from financial ruin.

Greeted by a mass of fans as he arrived at UMP headquarters, Sarkozy called for donations to prop up the party after France's top legal body ruled last week that it overshot spending limits on his failed 2012 re-election campaign and must repay 11 million euros ($14.15 million) in state subsidies.

While Sarkozy denied the meeting marked the start of his political comeback, the former president has made clear that he is mulling a re-election bid for 2017 and opinion polls show more than half of UMP supporters want him to do so.

Many on the right see Sarkozy as the only person who can reunite a party that fractured into two feuding camps, one with a hardline stance on immigration and the other more moderate, after his May 2012 defeat to Socialist Francois Hollande.

"This is not my political comeback," Sarkozy tweeted as the meeting began - his first statement on Twitter since his election defeat. "When I return to the podium it will be to speak to the French people about France."

Recent surveys by pollster Ifop show only 40 percent of voters want Sarkozy back as president, but among UMP supporters 58 percent want him to run in 2017, leagues ahead of his closest rival and former prime minister, Francois Fillon, at 16 percent.

Respondents gave the UMP's president, Jean-Francois Cope, a Sarkozy ally who says he will only run if his mentor does not, just 10 percent support. Other potential candidates had single-digit support.

Cope told Monday's meeting that since the constitutional council's ruling on Thursday, some 4,000 people had joined the UMP and it had raised 2.3 million euros in donations out of the 11 million it needs to raise before end-July.

Sarkozy only fanned speculation he is plotting his return by telling the audience that it was not the moment to talk about the next election. "The day that I make a comeback, I'll make it known," he said.

Any comeback will hinge, however, on the outcome of a rash of legal cases involving people close to him, including allegations of illicit campaign financing and political rigging in an arbitration payout to a high-profile businessman.

A public prosecutor has recommended Sarkozy be dropped from a probe into whether L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt was duped into handing over funds for his 2007 election campaign, but other investigations could take months to come to a conclusion.

Sarkozy has immunity for life for any official acts carried out while he was president, but would suffer if investigations lead to charges against people in his inner circle or if he is found to be at fault over his 2007 campaign funding.

The problems at the UMP come at a time when the far-right National Front is enjoying a surge in support as disillusioned voters shun the ruling Socialists over Hollande's failure to bring down rampant unemployment. The far-right came close to winning a third parliament seat in a recent by-election.

(This story is refiled to clarify it was public prosecutor that recommended Sarkozy be dropped from Bettencourt investigation)

(Reporting by Catherine Bremer)

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