Sarkozy has not yet officially declared his intention of standing in the 2017 presidential election – and he told the Journal du Dimanche (JDD) Sunday paper that he will not do so in a television interview set for Sunday evening.
But the two men who have already declared they want the mainstream right’s nomination – Juppé and another ex-premier, François Fillon – appeared in no doubt that he has his eyes on that prize.
Dismissing Sarkozy’s reference to his 2004 conviction in a party-funding scandal, he advised the former president, who is the subject of seven legal inquiries, not to join battle on the question of “legal worries”.
“I don’t subscribe to a leader cult but to the cult of ideas,” was Fillon’s response at a meeting and barbecue near Paris on Sunday.
“The question today isn’t who can beat [Socialist President] François Hollande,” he said. “Pretty much anybody can. No, the question is how to bring together the French people and above all what to do.”
Fillon is preparing a “project for France” ahead of the 2016 primaries for right-wing presidential candidate, he told his audience.
Sarkozy’s Facebook declaration called for a revamp on the right, avoiding referring to the UMP by name and promising to rally the right and centre in a new formation.
That drew an acid reaction from liberal politician François Bayrou.
“The last thing French politics needs is a single party,” he commented at a school for members of his Modem party.
Sarkozy told the JDD that he did want to change the UMP’s name and structure but not its address, as some reports had said, because of the “crisis” in the real estate sector.
And he was anything but self-effacing when commenting on his personal popularity.
"I read that a third of people are interested in my return,” he said. “That's 20 million people. How well would Hollande, Juppé or Fillon score if the same question was asked of them?”