PARIS Former prime minister Alain Juppe joined the race to be the presidential candidate of France's centre-right on Wednesday, posing a potential challenge both to a 2017 comeback bid by Nicolas Sarkozy and to the rise of the extreme right.
Juppe's declaration on his Internet blog also came as Socialist President Francois Hollande's government returned from its summer break to a stalled economy and an opinion poll showing more than eight out of 10 voters have no confidence in its ability to fix it.
"(We must) rally right from the first round (of the presidential election) the forces right and centre around a candidate who can face up to the National Front on the one side and the Socialist Party on the other," his blog said.
"If we are divided, the outcome of the first round will be uncertain and the consequences of the second round unpredictable," said Juppe, whose Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) has been dogged by internal divisions.
Francois Bayrou, head of the MoDem minority centrist party whose support the UMP might need in the 2017 presidential election, has ruled out any alliance with Sarkozy.
"If you are asking me could I get on with Alain Juppe, then the answer is yes," Bayrou told France Info radio on Wednesday.
Juppe, 69, was prime minister from 1995 to 1997 under President Jacques Chirac. He also served as foreign minister under Sarkozy, who was president from 2007 to 2012, when he lost power to Hollande.
Economic reforms Juppe proposed under Chirac never saw the light of day and he left that post deeply unpopular, but his stature as a statesman-in-waiting has grown in recent years as the UMP struggles to overcome its internal feuds.
Both the UMP and the Socialists have been hemorrhaging voters to the extreme right National Front. French voters have been turned off them by scandals and infighting in the UMP and by the ruling Socialists' inability to combat unemployment.
The National Front came first in the European Parliament elections in May and polls show its leader, Marine Le Pen, could come out on top in a preliminary round of presidential voting.
But although Juppe's supporters believe he can broaden the UMP's appeal, his announcement also turns a spotlight onto the rivalries and clan warfare threatening the party, where half a dozen senior members are eyeing the chance to become leader.
Earlier this year, Jean-Francois Cope resigned as UMP president over a legal inquiry into whether party officials had used its books to cover up millions of euros of overspending on Sarkozy's 2012 re-election campaign.
In what some may see as a swipe at Sarkozy, Juppe said in his blog statement that the UMP was "struggling to end a very turbulent period" in its history.
Sarkozy has said he will announce in August or early September whether he plans to run for the UMP leadership - a potential first step to any fresh bid for the French presidency.
But Sarkozy's future remains as unclear as the UMP's.
Last month, he was placed under formal investigation on suspicion of trying to influence magistrates examining his 2007 election campaign finances.
An opinion poll published by the Journal de Dimanche and Ifop on Sunday showed 45 percent of French people would prefer Juppe or another former prime minister, Francois Fillon, as president, while only 41 percent favored Sarkozy.
However, a July poll - conducted after the investigation was announced - showed that among UMP supporters, 60 percent wanted Sarkozy as their leader, up 10 percent from his standing in May.
And with the UMP machine behind him, Sarkozy might prove a tough rival for Juppe, who will be into his 70s by the time the election comes around. Sarkozy is now 59.
Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, head of the Socialist Party, said the UMP's 2017 election campaign was already in disarray.
"Alain Juppe announces his candidature out of fear that Sarkozy will announce his own," Cambadelis said in a statement, calling the situation "presidential overflow" for the UMP.
(Additional reporting by Yves Clarisse; Editing by Brian Love and Gareth Jones)