Send in Sarkozy: Will Former French President Rescue His Imploding Party?

After a week of an increasingly bitter leadership fight, France's main conservative party appeals to former President Nicolas Sarkozy to negotiate peace--or fill the void his departure from politics created in the first place.

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Philippe Wojazer / Reuters

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France appears on stage before his UMP party supporters in Paris on May 6, 2012, after his defeat in the second-round vote of the French presidential election

In the accumulating days since members of France’s main conservative party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), voted to chose their next leader Nov. 18, two major things have happened: a winner was declared, and fighting over that disputed result has pushed the divided, headless party to the brink of implosion.

Now, that internecine struggle has gotten so ferocious — and surreal — that a third development is taking shape: former UMP champion Nicolas Sarkozy is reportedly entering the fray to resolve the crisis. And with that move coming just six months after Sarkozy’s re-election defeat led him to announce his retirement from political life, some observers wonder whether his UMP rescue mission may not mark the end of his short-lived adieu to French politics.

According to French media reports, Sarkozy flew back from an economic conference in China to meet with his former Prime Minister and UMP leadership candidate François Fillon on Monday to discuss the astonishing chaos that has brought the party to the brink of collapse. The turmoil began when tight balloting Nov. 18 for the UMP’s top job led Fillon and his rival for the post, incumbent chief Jean-François Copé, to exchange accusations of electoral fraud. Despite apparent irregularities in voting and confusion surrounding counting, both men then declared themselves the winner before results were in.

(MORE: France’s Right-Wing Civil War: Leadership Vote Plunges UMP into Chaos)

On Nov. 19, the UMP election commission — staffed largely with Copé allies — pronounced the incumbent victorious by a 98-vote margin. Two days later, Fillon supporters revealed they had discovered ballots from three overseas territories that had been ignored in the tally, and when counted, gave the former Premier the win with a 26-vote margin. The election commission did not deny that accidental omission but called the initial outcome in Copé’s favor definitive.

Since then, allegations, recriminations and insults between campaign opponents and their camps created the feel of a political soap opera, with Fillon refusing to recognize his enemy’s victory and Copé rejecting any proposals to end the clash that doesn’t enshrine his win as legitimate and final. On Sunday, a final effort at mediation by former Premier and UMP elder statesman Alain Juppé ended in failure. And France continued gazing on in bemused disbelief.

(MORE: A Winner, but Little Unity, in Battle to Lead French Conservatives)

Noting the overlapping news of Dallas actor Larry Hagman’s death, left-leaning daily Libération ran a mocking headline on Monday: “UMP, Your Merciless World: J.R. Died Friday, but ‘Dallas’ Continues.” The conservative paper Le Figaro was no more tender with the running spectacle the party has provided the nation over the past week and headlined its Monday edition with the lament, “UMP: Suicide, Live.”

Time will tell whether reports of the UMP’s death were greatly exaggerated — or merely came a tad early — but its state is indeed grave. Just half a year after the party lost its decadelong hold on legislative power — and 17-year lock on the Élysée — the UMP is at considerable risk of either splitting apart or collapsing within the enduring chaos. Beyond the personal animosity that has long separated Copé and Fillon (a sentiment that blossomed into full-bore hatred over the past week), their political visions for the party only deepen the growing ideological rift of their respective backers.

Copé leans further right than Fillon and has long staked out hard-line positions on law and order, immigration and Islam’s influence in France reminiscent of those held by National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen. Copé went further in that direction during the UMP race, championing an “uninhibited right” that, once “freed of political correctness,” will battle what he called “antiwhite racism” in France. Fillon responded by scolding the “language of division” and emphasized the UMP’s more inclusive neo-Gaullist platform that considers the FN and its xenophobic values anathema.

(MORE: After Sarkozy, Will France’s Conservatives Turn to the Far Right?)

That clashing view over the party’s future direction has become starker in recent weeks as hard-right factions within the UMP have grown more vocal amid the leadership battle. Meanwhile, polls show a fairly even split between UMP members who favor an alliance with the FN — until recently an unthinkable taboo — and those who favor partnerships with centrists.

Given the current poisonous atmosphere, the eventual success of one camp taking power could well send opponents abandoning the UMP in droves for other parties — or to found new ones of their own. That’s already happening. The centrist Union of Democrats and Independents party says nearly 10% of its 64,000 members have joined since the trouble within the UMP began. That flow is likely to gush if Copé takes over as UMP head. Should Fillon’s legal challenges succeed in reversing the result, a similar rush from the UMP toward the FN — or a new hard-right party — may occur.

That threat led Sarkozy’s former Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet to post an online petition Sunday calling for an entirely new election to be held. Given Copé’s hostility to that idea — and his position as incumbent and re-elected UMP leader — that redo seems very unlikely. But maybe not impossible.

Despite Sarkozy’s reported return and foray into the UMP disaster, it’s unclear how he could even impose a resolution that the diametrically opposed Fillon and Copé could accept — or would feel forced to embrace. Except perhaps one. Some pundits speculate Sarkozy might agree to become temporary UMP chief awaiting a definitive solution — then retain that post if none can be found.

Alternatively, observers suggest, a new UMP election could be called with Sarkozy himself seeking the leadership job — an assured win for the ex-President and onetime UMP head who remains by far the most popular conservative figure among party members. Though still considered improbable, that scenario would also grant Sarkozy the status he reportedly still covets — that of the UMP’s presumptive presidential candidate in 2017 general elections. But for now, Sarkozy has inherited the role Monday’s Le Monde called: “The Hopeful Recourse of a Party Falling Apart.”