France's ruling centre-right UMP party launched its campaign for next month's regional elections on Monday by proclaiming its unity but struggling to put the damaging effects of the "Clearstream" smear case behind it.
The opposition Socialists dominate regional governments and the two-round March 14-21 poll will be a big test of President Nicolas Sarkozy's support as he presses on with his reform agenda before the next presidential election in 2012.
"The country needs unity and accord to get out of this crisis which the French are going through," UMP party spokesman Frederic Lefebvre told reporters on Monday.
But the "Clearstream trial", over a tangled and bitter political scandal at the heart of Sarkozy's UMP, has reopened old wounds in the centre-right as the election campaign gets under way.
A verdict was handed down last week acquitting former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin of being part of a plot to implicate Sarkozy in a corruption affair when they served in government together and both were angling for the presidency.
But the case was kept alive when prosecutors appealed.
"The acquittal of Dominique de Villepin and then the appeal by prosecutors can only have harmful effects for the right," the Le Monde daily said in an editorial on Monday.
With a public deficit equivalent to 8.2 percent of Gross Domestic Product and big savings from local authority budgets needed to help bring it down, the affair comes at a bad time for the government.
Message of unity
Villepin accused Sarkozy last week of pressuring the nominally independent state prosecutor to appeal his acquittal, stoking the longstanding enmity between the two and giving a focus to discontent in the centre-right.
The former prime minister holds no elected office but has some support in the ranks of the UMP and the party leadership was at pains on Monday to present a united front as it kicked off the regional election campaign.
"The message Dominique de Villepin and all political representatives have to pay heed to is the message of unity from our voters and party members," UMP secretary general Xavier Bertrand told RMC radio on Monday.
Sarkozy, who has said he will stay out of day-to-day campaigning for the election because it would be incompatible with his role as head of state, has seen his own approval ratings slide in recent months.
An opinion poll published on Monday suggested that despite denials from his aides, many voters believe he had a hand in the prosecutor's decision to appeal the Clearstream ruling because of his vendetta against Villepin. The survey by pollsters BVA found 43 percent believed the decision to appeal was due to Sarkozy's determination to pursue Villepin against 35 percent who did not believe so.
The divisions re-opened by the Clearstream trial come on top of a long series of policy differences within UMP ranks on issues ranging from local tax reform to immigration or attempts to banish all-covering Islamic burqas from French streets.
ReutersLast Mod: 01 Şubat 2010, 21:48