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Sarkozy bets on The Republicans

What’s in a name? Shakespeare asked that question centuries ago. Former French leader Nicolas Sarkozy may have the answer, as he rebrands his center-right party. Elizabeth Bryant reports from Paris.

At a party congress on Saturday, Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) members are expected to formally endorse the catchier new moniker of "Les Republicains," or "The Republicans." "We're going to show the country that 'The Republicans' have decided to hold their heads high," rejoiced Sarkozy, after winning a legal challenge this week to the party's use of the name. "Long live the Republicans!"

But a bigger battle lies ahead for the 60-year-old politician as he tries to recapture the presidency in 2017 - and to shrug off a string of scandals and his past reputation as an abrasive and polarizing figure.

"The point (of the name change) is to get away from the brand UMP and what it might mean to voters," says Steven Ekovich, professor of comparative politics at the American University of Paris. "To wipe away any resonance of scandals and of political attrition."

If it works, "The Republicans" will be Sarkozy's latest success since returning to politics last fall. Two months later he was elected to head the UMP. In March, his party swept local elections, beating out the surging far-right National Front party, and dealing a heavy blow to President Francois Hollande and his ruling Socialists.

Bitter infighting

But Sarkozy's comeback has not been problem free. The UMP is still recovering from bitter infighting. Two party rivals - former Prime Ministers Alain Juppe and Francois Fillon - are also eyeing presidential bids. More serious are the corruption and influence peddling allegations dogging Sarkozy.

Party banner

Their name may change but will their politics?

Earlier this month, a Paris court dealt a further blow, ruling that potentially incriminating wiretapped conversations between Sarkozy and his lawyer could be used in a separate probe into his past campaign financing. Sarkozy is appealing the ruling.

Whether a rebranded party and its leader can wipe the slate clean and energize a disgruntled French electorate is uncertain. Indeed, the very significance of the Republicans is a matter of fiercely conflicting interpretations.

Critics - including four leftist parties and dozens of individuals who tried to block the UMP's use of the name - accuse Sarkozy and his party of trying to co-opt the nation's basic values of liberty, equality and fraternity that date back to the French revolution. A recent poll suggests many French agree. Other critics draw negative parallels with the US Republican party.

"The Republicans, A Blow Against the Republic," headlined France's Le Monde newspaper in an editorial this week, accusing Sarkozy's party of wanting to impose a narrow and authoritarian meaning to the term.

Little impact?

But despite the hot debate, "The Republicans" may ultimately have little impact. Yet another survey finds 65 percent of French are underwhelmed by the terms "Republican" and "Republican values" - suggesting their overuse by politicians, according to academic Vincent Tournier. "Voters have become very suspicious," he told the French news website Atlantico, which published the May poll.

"Everyone says they're for Republican values," says analyst Etienne Schweisguth, of the Paris-based Center for European Studies. But, he added, "by identifying with Republican values, it allows Sarkozy to suggest everyone else is less Republican than he. And it gives him a platform to roll out his discourse on getting ahead by merit and against social assistance."

Like his party, Sarkozy is also trying to rebrand himself. Gone is the arrogant, "bling-bling" leader who was ousted by Hollande in 2012. "He's trying to break from his previous polarizing image and to pose as someone who's inclusive," Schweisguth says.

Sarko to the rescue?

Sarkozy is also trying to cast himself as the "go-to" candidate for French voters searching for alternatives to the now deeply unpopular Hollande and far right leader Marine Le Pen. His latest campaign clip is a riff on Hollande's winning "change is now" slogan of three years ago, and he borrows some of the far right's anti-immigration rhetoric. Like Le Pen's National Front, he talks about returning to the values of the Republic, and wants people receiving certain welfare benefits to work for them.

woman behind curtain

Biding her time

But the National Front is still polling strongly, and the American University's Ekovich believes Le Pen will lead in the first round of presidential voting, in 2017. "The next president will come in second in the first round, and then will probably win against Le Pen in the second round," he said. "So all the strategizing, all the maneuvring is about getting the most votes to come in second."

Analyst Schweisguth thinks it's still too early to predict the outcome.

"Sarkozy has a big chance of winning power - but exercizing it is another thing," he adds. "He's someone who makes a lot of promises before the elections, but afterwards realizes very few of them."

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