by Fran BLANDY
PARIS, Nov 29, 2014 (AFP) – France’s former president Nicolas Sarkozy was on Saturday tipped to win the leadership of his right-wing UMP in party elections, a position seen as a potential springboard back into high office.
The 59-year-old broke the worst-kept secret in French politics when he announced his political comeback in September, presenting himself as the saviour of his bitterly divided conservative opposition party.
There are no doubts about his aim, if yet unstated: to win back the keys to the Elysee palace which he lost in a humiliating poll defeat to Francois Hollande in 2012.
“Staying in the background when everything is going so badly would be cowardice, the opposite of my idea of political commitment,” Sarkozy told a political meeting on the eve of the vote.
The energetic former leader has criss-crossed the country to drum up support for his candidacy at the head of the party all the while slamming the “mediocrity” of Hollande’s deeply unpopular Socialist government.
Pollsters expect Sarkozy to sail through the election despite his much-heralded return to politics largely seen as having fallen flat, with his tangle of legal woes continuing to dog him.
UMP members began voting by internet on Friday night, and polls close at 8:00pm (1900 GMT) on Saturday. Results are expected shortly after.
The vote pits Sarkozy against main rival Bruno Le Maire — a former minister and senior party figure — and lawmaker Herve Mariton.
However a victory still does not guarantee him a shot at toppling Hollande in presidential elections in 2017.
Sarkozy has as many devotees as rivals in the deeply split party, which is currently run by a trio of former prime ministers appointed after former leader Jean-Francois Cope was forced to resign in May over a campaign funding scandal linked to Sarkozy’s last election bid.
This means 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.
– ‘An act of revenge’ –
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.
“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.”
Knapp said Sarkozy’s bid for the presidency is “partly an act of revenge for a defeat which he has never fully accepted”.
With Hollande’s unpopular Socialist government taking a whipping in opinion polls, experts say the 2017 election is seen as 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 in 2017 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.