PARIS Licking its wounds and rudderless since Socialist Francois Hollande ended its 17-year hold on the presidency, France's UMP party is set to decide between moderate former prime minister Francois Fillon and Sarkozy's youthful protégé Jean-Francois Cope as the leader to return it to power in 2017.
The two were confirmed on Tuesday as the candidates in the race to succeed Sarkozy as leader of France's conservatives. While the solemn, bushy-browed Fillon outscores the combative Cope in popularity surveys, his rival appeals to UMP hardliners who lament Sarkozy's fall from grace.
Despite his vow to stay out of politics, Sarkozy's influence will loom heavy over a November 18 party vote that will also set the direction for the main opposition party in parliament.
An opinion poll by LH2 published on Tuesday found that 43 percent of conservative voters think Sarkozy would have the best chance of regaining the presidency for the UMP in 2017, ahead of Fillon, on 32 percent, and Cope, on 21 percent.
"The way Nicolas Sarkozy is looming over this election suggests he is still the boss of the right," said political scientist Thomas Guenole. "All the candidates are positioning themselves in relation to him."
Cope, the UMP's 48-year-old secretary general, has mimicked Sarkozy's soundbites and mannerisms in recent weeks, promised to follow his "hyperactive" style, and says he would stand aside should his mentor decide to stage a comeback for 2017.
"I have resolutely decided to walk in the footsteps of Nicolas Sarkozy," Cope said on Sunday.
He recently told journalists that UMP members "want somebody who is going to jump in and get their hands dirty".
Fillon, 58 and also a minister during Jacques Chirac's presidency, says he would be "more serene and pragmatic" than Sarkozy, but nonetheless stays in close touch with him and would seek his support if he wins the party leadership.
"I cannot imagine leading the party he helped to develop without his support," Fillon told the daily Le Parisien.
SARKOZY STILL BOSS
The UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) is under pressure to pull together and present a united opposition front as Hollande pushes through legislation on everything from tax rises to rights for long-term foreign residents to vote in local elections.
The party was founded in 2002 as a bid to unify a fragmented right by merging the Gaullist RPR and the centrist UDF parties of former presidents Chirac and Valery Giscard d'Estaing.
As UMP leader from 2004, Sarkozy pulled it to the right, in part to stop voters defecting to the hard-right National Front. The tactic helped him win the 2007 election but created a rift with moderates that played to the Left's advantage in May.
"The challenge for the right is to position itself behind a charismatic leader who has strong support," said Celine Bracq of pollsters BVA. "The UMP has to win it all back."
Fillon and Cope have similar views on economic and European policy and both support more budget discipline and reforms to lower labour costs, meaning their personalities and the degree of their allegiance to Sarkozy will be the defining factors.
Tempered in tone and with a hangdog look and serious demeanour, Fillon is often rated the best-liked politician in France. Critics see him as dull, although a motorcycle accident over the summer revealed a racy hobby and he is an avid fan of motor racing, to the point of testing cars on the renowned Le Mans race track.
Cope, a more polarising figure, is a shrewd politician who supporters say has the same bulldozing presence as Sarkozy, but critics say is devious and less likeable than Fillon.
Opinion polls tend to show half of respondents giving Fillon a positive personal rating against only a third for Cope.
Widespread rejection of Sarkozy's impetuous manner, his hardline stance on immigration and his tax cuts on the wealthy were a key factor in Hollande's election win, but even opponents recognise it will take a strong personality to replace him.
(Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Kevin Liffey)