PARIS (Reuters) - Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy cemented his grip on the center-right opposition party on Saturday after party members overwhelmingly approved renaming it "the Republicans", in a blow to conservative rivals ahead of the 2017 presidential election.
A day after 83 percent of the party's more than 210,000 members backed the name change from the clunkier Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), Sarkozy rebuffed critics who say it is an attempt by the right to usurp the values of the entire nation.
"To those who accuse us of confiscating the Republic, I want to respond that if they had not betrayed it, abandoned it, degraded it, we would not have to restore it today," Sarkozy told party members at a congress to launch the new party.
His highest profile center-right challengers Alain Juppe and Francois Fillon, both former prime ministers and seen as more moderate, were booed by party members as they stepped onto the stage, although Sarkozy sought to defend the two "statesmen".
The former French president also received support from his former "Merkozy" counterpart, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who sent a recorded video message to congratulate him.
"Dear Nicolas Sarkozy, dear friends, I would like to send my best wishes for your congress in my name and on behalf of the CDU," she said, adding that she hoped the two parties would collaborate further.
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.
Sarkozy was placed under formal investigation last year on suspicion that he tried to influence magistrates examining his 2007 election campaign finances.
He faces a hard task convincing the French he is fit to lead the euro zone's second-biggest economy.
Some 72 percent of the French said they did not want him to run in the next presidential election, according to an Odoxa poll for iTele and Le Parisien published on Saturday.
Showing he remains a divisive figure even with his own political family, only 49 percent of center-right sympathizers said they supported his bid for the presidency in the same poll, while 50 percent opposed it.
(Reporting by Sophie Louet and Ingrid Melander; Writing by Michel Rose; Editing by Rosalind Russell)