PARIS - Former French President Jacques Chirac has backed his one-time protege Alain Juppe in the centre-right's presidential primary, resuming a feud with Nicolas Sarkozy who is seeking to gather support for a fresh tilt at the presidency in 2017.
The two men have been estranged since Sarkozy backed a centre-right rival in the 1995 presidential contest that Chirac eventually won.
Chirac's wife Bernadette, popular with the opposition UMP's party faithful, has backed Sarkozy to reclaim the presidency he lost in 2012 to Socialist Francois Hollande, saying at the weekend that her husband's favourite Juppe turned off voters.
Chirac, 81, who supported Hollande in the last election, told Le Figaro newspaper he would have campaigned for Juppe personally had his failing health permitted.
The long-standing rivalry between Chirac and Sarkozy also highlights divisions within the centre-right torn between reconnecting with centrist voters estranged by Sarkozy's abrasive style and courting voters who have flocked to the far-right National Front.
Juppe, a cerebral Chirac loyalist blamed by many for the centre-right's loss in a 1997 snap parliamentary election, is challenging Sarkozy in the primary contest the centre-right UMP will organise ahead of the 2017 presidential election.
"I have always known that Alain Juppe would meet his destiny and that of France. Few things could make me happier for myself, for him and above all for our country," Chirac told Le Figaro.
"If I was stronger I would have reserved a spot, even a small one, at his headquarters," told Thursday's edition of the paper.
Sarkozy, who quit politics after defeat to Hollande, announced last month that he would seek the UMP leadership, opening the way for a possible return to the Elyse Palace.
Francois Fillon, who served as prime minister under Sarkozy, is also seeking the UMP nomination.
A survey of UMP voters by pollster Harris Interactive published last month showed that Sarkozy was by far their favourite to take the helm of the party. But Juppe scores better than Sarkozy in surveys of all French voters when asked who they would like to see as their next president.
Reviled by many left-wing voters, Sarkozy is embroiled in a string of legal cases that could yet de-rail his hopes of regaining power.
Three former UMP party officials were detained on Thursday as part of a fraud probe into an events firm employed by the UMP during Sarkozy's 2012 election campaign, legal sources said.
Under investigation are allegations that the firm, Bygmalion, was ordered by party officials to produce millions of euros' worth of fake invoices to cover up campaign cost over-runs, in breach of party financing laws.
Sarkozy has stated he was unaware of any wrongdoing but some UMP members fear that this and other legal cases in which he is targeted make him too much of a political liability for the 2017 election, despite the socialist incumbent's record unpopularity.