France's UMP party changes name to The Republicans, boosting Sarkozy

PARIS (Reuters) - French conservatives overwhelmingly backed renaming their UMP party “The Republicans” on Friday in a boost for former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who wants to use the re-branding as a springboard for the 2017 presidential election.

France's former president Nicolas Sarkozy attends the French Ligue 1 soccer match between Paris St Germain and Reims at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, France, May 23, 2015. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

With 83 percent of the party’s more than 210,000 members backing the name change, the vote marked a new step in Sarkozy’s political comeback, although it remains at risk from challengers within the party and his judicial woes.

“We call on all Republicans to rally around us,” Sarkozy said in a statement.

The strong majority makes it more likely that Sarkozy will win his party’s nomination to run for president and weakens his main challenger, former prime minister Alain Juppe.

Nearly 46 percent of the UMP members voted in the poll, which was widely seen as a test of Sarkozy’s popularity within the party. While it was assumed that the proposed name change would win the day, a narrow majority would have weakened Sarkozy’s position.

The new party’s new statutes and its new executive bureau were approved with majorities of 96 and 95 percent respectively.

Sarkozy, who was elected party chief with 64.5 percent of the votes in November, was French president from 2007 to 2012.

A divisive figure, Sarkozy has gone to great lengths over the past few months to show that he is working on uniting the party behind him.

While his return at the helm of the “Union for a Popular Movement” (UMP) was shaky at first, the party’s victory in local elections in March enhanced Sarkozy’s credibility and his changes to win the party’s primaries vote in 2016.

“The final word has not been spoken yet, far from it, but Sarkozy is gradually beginning to dominate his political family,” said Jerome Fourquet of polling firm Ifop.

The name “Les Republicains” is highly controversial, with critics saying it is an attempt by the political right to usurp the values of the entire nation. A court rejected a call for an emergency ban earlier this week.

Reporting by Sophie Louet and Ingrid Melander, writing by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Larry King