PARIS Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, struggling to put his re-election bid back on track, urged his conservative party on Sunday to rally behind a programme of curbing immigration, building more jails and cutting taxes.
Sarkozy wants his platform, which also includes overhauling labour rules and restoring checks at French borders, to set the party line for the 2017 presidential elections.
But his main rivals for November primaries that will choose The Republicans' (LR) candidate for the presidential elections have all said they would not be bound by it.
They snubbed his keynote speech at the end of a two-day policy meeting of top party officials, one of them saying he couldn't be there "because it's Valentine's Day."
Sarkozy said he would put the policy plan to a vote of all party members in April. "It would be unacceptable for us to be divided at a time when the (far-right) National Front is so strong," he said. "There will be no going back.".
While he received a standing ovation from hundreds of party officials, Sarkozy, who is also the party leader, has fallen behind his main rival Alain Juppe in opinion polls.
Some 48 percent of right-wing voters think Juppe would be LR's best candidate in 2017, versus only 20 percent for Sarkozy, a BVA poll published on Saturday showed, confirming a string of similar polls in the past weeks.
And while for long Sarkozy remained more popular with LR sympathisers, he has fallen behind there too, with 43 percent favouring Juppe while 30 percent prefer Sarkozy, the poll showed.
"CAN'T BE THERE, IT'S VALENTINE'S DAY"
Sarkozy, who had retired from politics after he lost in his first re-election bid to the Socialist party's Francois Hollande in 2012, made a comeback in September 2104 and was elected as head of the party.
While he still commands loyalty amid party officials, he has in past months seen Juppe, a former prime minister in the mid-1990s, rise in opinion polls and overtake him, with the gap between them widening.
Their rivalry is set to dominate much of the party's agenda until its members vote in the November primaries. Both published books last month setting out their platforms - with Sarkozy on Sunday reiterating that France must set tougher rules on granting citizenship and reinstate border checks as long as Europe's border-free Schengen area is not completely overhauled.
Criticism - sometimes veiled, sometimes open - among senior officials was rife at the two-day meeting and French media said another official, Jean-Francois Cope, was set to announce he too will run in the party primaries in an evening news interview, at the same time as another channel interviews Sarkozy.
Asked why he would not be there to listen to Sarkozy's policy speech, one Sarkozy challenger, Bruno Le Maire, told BFM TV on Saturday: "I want to spend Valentine’s day with my wife and children." Juppe also invoked "family reasons."
(Additional reporting by Sophie Louet and Geert de Clercq; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)
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