Sarkozy Allies Urge Him to Return, Lead Divided Opposition

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy Susana Vera/Reuters

PARIS (Reuters) - Allies of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy lined up on Wednesday to call for his return to head an opposition UMP party beset by crisis, setting the stage for a comeback that could propel him to a re-election bid in 2017.

Sarkozy, who lost power to Socialist President Francois Hollande in 2012, has since avoided direct involvement in politics but is widely expected to seek re-election in 2017 and has been commenting with increasing frequency on European current affairs.

With his former UMP party in crisis, hit by a campaign funding scandal that forced its chief to step down and set off a leadership contest, friends of the former president urged him to take its reins and run for president.

"We need a leader, a project and a direction," European deputy Brice Hortefeux, a close ally of Sarkozy and formerly his interior minister, told Le Monde in an interview. "I want him to be candidate to run the UMP in the autumn."

A trio of former prime ministers are set to lead the party temporarily until a congress in October is held and elects a new leader, potentially leaving it directionless for months.

"If Nicolas Sarkozy wants to return to the political stage, it's an opportunity to be seized," said Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi, who heads an association of Sarkozy supporters.

Leading the party would offer Sarkozy an opportunity rebuild a power base with a poll published on Wednesday indicating that he is not voters preferred candidate for leading the party.

Former prime minister Alain Juppe was the most popular among voters for the job with 20 percent preferring the mayor Bordeaux to lead the party, followed by Sarkozy's former premier Francois Fillioon with 11 percent and Sarkozy himself with only 9 percent, according to the Harris Interactive poll.

Sarkozy was not named in the legal complaint that brought down Cope but his political comeback could yet be tripped up by other issues around his record. These include other accusations against the party of illegal financing and influence peddling during his period in power, and an affair over leaked tapes in which the former leader is heard trashing his then ministers. Sarkozy has denied wrongdoing.