Troubled Hollande enjoys respite from scrutiny as right wing tears itself apart

Wed, Dec 5, 2012, 00:00

It has nudged celebrities off magazine covers and given newspapers the sort of political psychodrama they have pined for since the hyperkinetic presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy came to an end in May. Rolling television news channels have replayed every turn on a constant loop, as if the daily flow of news had been suspended to make way for this grotesque, gripping spectacle.

Such is the compelling appeal of the fratricidal battle engulfing France’s main conservative party, the UMP, whose contest to find a leader to replace Sarkozy has descended into a fiasco that threatens the party’s very existence.

The UMP’s divisions boiled to the surface on November 18th, when 180,000 party members voted to choose their new leader. With the result too close to call, Jean-François Copé, a former budget minister and the current secretary-general of the party, went on TV to declare victory. He was followed 10 minutes later by François Fillon, Sarkozy’s prime minister for five years, who announced that he had won. It was not until the next day that the party’s electoral commission declared Copé the winner by just 98 votes.

But the Fillon camp held firm, claiming uncounted votes from three overseas territories would have given their man victory by 26 votes. A poisonous standoff has ensued, with both sides accusing the other of ballot fraud and refusing to back down.

Re-run offer

Across the party, the public veneer of collegiate harmony has given way to acrimonious mud-slinging. Fillon has said that a political party cannot be run like a “Mafia gang” and has set up a dissident group in parliament. Copé has offered a re-run, but only after municipal elections in 2014 – by which time, the Fillonistes complain, he will have sealed his grip on the organisation. The two men met for talks yesterday, but the impasse remains.

“It’s a disaster,” said Alain Juppé, the former prime minister and UMP grandee. Le Figaro, the right-wing daily, has called it “live suicide”.

Fillon, the urbane, polished veteran from rural Sarthe in western France, was the strong favourite to win the leadership election against the younger, more abrasive Copé. Their campaigns were a study in contrast.

Fillon stressed his unifying, statesman’s credentials and his competence on economic policy, while Copé positioned himself as the voice of the droite décomplexée (unapologetic right) – code for a tough line on immigration and Islam.

The duel between Fillon and Copé may be a clash of egos and styles, but it also stands for a broader ideological tussle for the heart of mainstream French conservatism. It has always been an uneasy coalition. The UMP was created in 2002 to contain the growth of the far-right National Front by uniting different ideological families – including economic liberals, Gaullists, centrists and cultural conservatives.

Old divisions

The cohabitation of so many different groups held under the charismatic leadership of Jacques Chirac and Sarkozy because, as political scientist Philippe Raynaud recently wrote, their legitimacy transcended these internal divisions. It also helped that they won elections.

But once Sarkozy left the scene, the old divisions resurfaced. On the one hand was Fillon, representing the party’s moderate, liberal wing, stressing his attachment to the market economy, European integration and a smaller state. On the other was Copé, who championed the ban on face-covering veils and spoke during the campaign of a growing “anti-white racism” in heavily immigrant areas. At ground level, meanwhile, the party is moving further to the right, according to research by the Ifop polling agency.

Sarkozy’s return?

The UMP is the big loser in the farce, but who benefits? Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader, has said requests to join her party have risen. But if Copé emerges victorious, she could just as easily see her softer support leak away. A more obvious winner is President François Hollande, who has had a long respite from public scrutiny of the economic problems and his own flagging popularity.

And then there is Sarkozy himself. It’s an open secret the former president remains closely involved in UMP politics and has been working to end the standoff. If Fillon and Copé emerge so damaged that neither can win the nomination for the presidency in 2017, then few would bet against the party turning again to its former figurehead.