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May 27, 2014 2:05 pm
France’s centre-right UMP party has become embroiled in a fresh scandal over alleged illegal funding of former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2012 election campaign, days after it was badly beaten in European elections by the far right National Front (FN).
The affair underlines the disarray among France’s two traditional leading parties after the FN, led by Marine Le Pen, trounced both the UMP and President François Hollande’s ruling Socialist party in Sunday’s European poll.
The scandal forced the resignation on Tuesday morning of Jean-Francois Copé, UMP president, amid recriminations among rival contenders for the party leadership at a meeting in the French National Assembly.
It has also cast further doubt on potential plans by Mr Sarkozy to make a comeback ahead of the next presidential election in 2017.
Mr Copé was felled by a dramatic admission on television on Monday night by Jérôme Lavrilleux, his chief of staff and former deputy director of Mr Sarkozy’s re-election campaign.
A tearful Mr Lavrilleux said fake invoices were solicited from an events organiser for fictitious party meetings to cover up overspending by Mr Sarkozy’s campaign, which he said exceeded the legal limit of €22.5m. Earlier, a lawyer for Bygmalion, the events agency run by two close associates of Mr Copé, said the invoices amounted to some €11m.
Shortly afterwards, police from the anti-fraud squad descended on UMP party headquarters to start an investigation.
Mr Lavrilleux insisted he had never told Mr Copé and Mr Sarkozy about the fake invoices.
Brice Hortefeux, a UMP former minister who acts as a spokesman for Mr Sarkozy, said the former president was “very unhappy” that his name had been associated with “this strange news”. Mr Copé also denied any knowledge.
But the affair, which had been brewing for several weeks following media leaks, reignited infighting over the UMP leadership that has crippled the party at a time when Mr Hollande is suffering record low approval ratings and the FN is in the ascendancy.
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The feuding has exacerbated policy divisions within the UMP over whether to tack to the right or centre to combat the FN, undermining its ability to confront the populist insurgency.
Ms Le Pen tore into the UMP on Tuesday, accusing Mr Sarkozy of “cheating on an industrial scale” and saying the scandal undermined the legitimacy of the 2012 election in which she came third after Mr Hollande and the UMP leader. The affair “widens the gap between the French people and the political class”, she said.
The reins of the UMP will be taken over temporarily by a trio of former prime ministers – François Fillon, Alain Juppé and Jean-Pierre Raffarin.
Mr Fillon and Mr Juppé, respectively prime minister and foreign minister under Mr Sarkozy, are both jostling for position as potential UMP presidential candidates for 2017. Neither wants to see the return of Mr Sarkozy.
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But the former president remains far more popular than both of them among UMP supporters and is widely believed to be preparing a comeback, believing he can defeat both the deeply unpopular Mr Hollande and Ms Le Pen.
His main vulnerability is a series of scandals he has struggled to shake off, including the latest campaign funding issue. His 2012 campaign expenses have already been once rejected by the election authorities for wrongly attributing some expenditure to official presidential spending, forcing the UMP to repay €11m in state subsidies.
It was also revealed this year that Mr Sarkozy had been under months of telephone surveillance by police investigating allegations – which he strenuously denies – that he received millions of euros in illicit funding from former Libyan dictator Muammer Gaddafi during his successful 2007 election campaign.
His former chief of staff and interior minister Claude Guéant has, meanwhile, been questioned under arrest this week over the alleged rigging of a commercial arbitration case during Mr Sarkozy’s presidency that resulted in a €400m payment to a prominent businessman who backed the former president in 2007. Mr Guéant has denied any wrongdoing.
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