Moment of truth for parties of the right
WORLD VIEW: The party, one commentator observed, faces the threat of extinction or even worse, becoming no more than the party of “angry old white men”.
He might have been speaking, as many did similarly in recent days, of the Grand Old Party, the US Republicans, but he was actually reflecting on the self-emasculation that constituted the leadership election this week in France’s own conservative UMP party.
In the end Jean-François Copé, the right wing protégé – some say clone – of Nicolas Sarkozy, had pipped centrist former prime minister François Fillon by the slimmest of margins (by 98 votes out of 176,608 cast). But the contest has left the party, which lost its 17-year hold on the presidency in May, deeply divided with bitter recriminations flying about voting irregularities.
Fillon, who promotes the more centrist tradition of Gaullism, closer to the populism of Fianna Fáil, has hinted he may stand for the 2017 presidential elections outside the party founded by former president Jacques Chirac in 2002 out of various centre-right parties and which is reeling from consistent losses over five years, of the presidency, parliament and most French regions.
But what is it with the right these days? There is a striking similarity, a wilful obduracy, in the current plight of both the UMP and the Republican Party, both languishing in post-defeat angst and blame games, and both riven by personal and ideological cleavages deeper even than those which separated them from the parties with which they contested their respective general elections.
Both also appear now as mirror images of what were seen only a matter of a decade and a half or so ago as the hopelessly unelectable, now united and reinvigorated, Socialists and Democrats. And to restore their electability they face a similar challenge in overcoming their own right wing memberships’ apparent willingness to sacrifice electability for ideological purity, and empowered by party primaries in both cases that allow them to bypass the centrist party grandees.
Take the issue of Islamophobia or its twin, immigration. Shamelessly courting the voters of the National Front on the right, Copé, like Sarkozy, played the card as Mitt Romney did in the primaries. Copé was responsible for France’s anti-burqa laws and last month he published A Manifesto for an Uninhibited Right, in which he attacked a culture of “anti-white racism” amongst immigrant communities in poor urban areas. And he notoriously told one campaign rally a story of a group of “thugs” snatching a pain au chocolat from the hands of a young boy and telling him there was no eating during the Muslim fast of Ramadan.
“The entire kingdom of the right is in ruins,” L’Express editor Christophe Barbier told Reuters. For many the only option is the return of Sarkozy (polls suggest two-thirds of party members see him as the best option), but his reputation may not yet survive judicial questioning over an investigation into illegal party funding.
For its part the Republican Party, which has now lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections, seems largely to be still in denial, determined to sail on against the demographic tide, the minorities who have become the majority, and which many see as laying the basis for a permanent Democratic majority. (Romney’s “explanation” to donors this week of his defeat carried shades of the “47 per cent” speech was that while he was pursuing the “big issues”, Barack Obama was buying the support of blacks, Hispanics and young people with goodies like college loans and healthcare reform. College-age women, Romney claimed, were seduced for “free contraceptives”. It did not go down well.)
A few Republicans have, however, begun to see that a remorseless anti-immigrant stance will not endear the party to the growing Hispanic community whose support was crucial to Obama. Straws in the wind, perhaps.
Right-wing pundit and Republican bellwether Sean Hannity of Fox News is a post-election convert to immigration reform, while columnist Charles Krauthammer wants the Republicans to endorse Florida’s Republican Hispanic hero Marco Rubio and an amnesty for illegals. Election 2016 would be in the bag, he says. John Boehner and Eric Cantor, the party’s congressional leadership, appear to agree.
The truth is, of course, that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. A U-turn on immigration and a determined outreach to the Hispanic community on traditional family values could well retrieve some of the ground lost. Mutatis mutandis for other communities. But can they bring the party with them?