If there is a glimmer of light in the pall of gloom hanging over President François Hollande, it is surely the Feydeau-esque farce being performed by his principal opponents in France’s centre-right opposition.
As he munches on his morning croissant in the Elysée Palace, Mr Hollande must be delighted by the daily pantomime served up in the French media since Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president he defeated in 2012, announced his return to the political frontline last month.
Although there are still two and a half years to go until the next election in 2017, Sarko’s return has set off a fresh spasm of infighting in his UMP party that has even put Jacques Chirac, his predecessor, at odds with Bernadette Chirac, the formidable former first lady.
Far from blowing away rival pretenders to the UMP presidential candidacy with the “nuclear shockwave” he promised his return would produce, Mr Sarkozy has been sucked into a rather less than statesmanlike Punch and Judy show.
His supporters were cock-a-hoop when Mrs Chirac, at 81 an indomitable figure whom Le Monde described last week as “the last queen of France”, laid into Alain Juppé, the former prime minister who has declared his candidacy for 2017 and who leads Sarko in the opinion polls.
“What has Juppé up against Nicolas Sarkozy?” she asked on a radio show. “He is very, very cold, he doesn’t attract people, friends or ultimately the voters.”
Sarko’s satisfaction was shortlived however. Within days Mr Chirac, a longtime Sarkozy foe but now an ailing figure who almost never makes any public statement, flatly contradicted his wife in the pages of Le Figaro, the UMP’s virtual house newspaper.
“I have always known that Alain Juppé would have his date with destiny and that of France,” he told a Figaro reporter about his one-time protégé. “Few things would give me, himself and above all the country greater pleasure.”
Mr Sarkozy has affected to stay above the fray, using his public appearances to lovebomb Mr Juppé and François Fillon, his former prime minister who has also taken up the cudgels. “I need them, France needs them,” he says.
But Sarko allies have been busily bad-mouthing both men in private, pointing out Mr Juppé’s age (he will be 71 at the next election) and his conviction for fixing jobs for party cronies, which forced him out of politics briefly a decade ago.
“My relations with Sarko are ‘Je t’aime, moi non plus’,” said Mr Juppé, in reference to Serge Gainsbourg’s ironic song title that means “I love you, me neither”. More pointedly, Mr Juppé warned the Sarkozy camp: “When it comes to judicial problems, it would be better not to provoke a fight.”
This was a reference to the slew of sleaze allegations sloshing around Mr Sarkozy – all of which he denies – from inquiries into whether he took illicit funds from the Libyan dictator Muammer Gaddafi to an unfolding investigation into an alleged UMP cover-up of illegal overspending on his 2012 presidential re-election campaign.
Mr Fillon weighed into the latter case after Mr Sarkozy said in an interview that he had not heard until “long after” the election campaign the name of Bygmalion, the company at the heart of the investigation. “It wasn’t a secret that Bygmalion was working with the UMP,” Mr Fillon said. “I thought everybody knew the existence of this company.”
Mr Sarkozy is hoping to assert his authority by winning a thumping victory in elections for the UMP presidency late next month. But even if he does, Mr Juppé and Mr Fillon have pledged to keep up the fight for the UMP presidential candidacy through to primary elections in 2016.
It may be too much for Mr Hollande, stranded on unprecedentedly low approval ratings, to hope that the UMP bloodletting will offer him a path to re-election. But at least it must lift his mood when he sees the latest headlines.
Financial Times readers of a certain age may have noted with a touch of nostalgia the 80th birthday last month of Brigitte Bardot, for whom Gainsbourg wrote “Je t’aime, moi non plus” (he recorded it with Jane Birkin – their love lives were complicated).
Ms Bardot, still living in St Tropez, has two causes in her life: animal welfare and support for Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front. Mr Hollande’s travails and UMP infighting are certainly driving ever more of her compatriots into Ms Le Pen’s arms.
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