Unified right is a dream come true for Chirac

 

FRANCE: President Jacques Chirac has hailed the formal launching of a single, united party of the French right as a dream come true and "a great moment in our political history".

Mr Chirac's message was read out before 15,000 supporters on Sunday night by the president of the new Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), Mr Alain Juppé.

"The creation of a movement destined to bring together a majority . . . is the realisation of a dream outlined right after the second World War," Mr Chirac said. "Never, in France, had we managed to end the scattering of our forces."

The French right has long been called "the most stupid right in the world" because it seemed unable to rise above internecine power struggles. The foundation of the UMP, in gestation since the French presidential campaign started last winter, crowns President Chirac's miraculous comeback and landslide victory in presidential and legislative polls.

The new party is the follow-on to the Union for the Presidential Majority - also called UMP - formed for the purpose of winning those elections. In keeping with a wave of anti-elitist feeling, the word "presidential" has been changed to "popular".

The other main benefactor of the new party is Mr Juppé, who from 1995 to 1997 was one of France's most unpopular prime ministers. Mr Juppé's attempt to reform the State-run pension system led to massive strikes that paralysed the country. He suffers from an image as a cold and arrogant énarque, as graduates of the most prestigious grande école are known. But Mr Chirac calls Mr Juppé "the best among us" and has urged him to smile more. Mr Juppé hopes to succeed Mr Chirac as President of France five years from now.

But can the French right maintain its hard-won unity? The UMP brings together the Rally for the Republic (RPR), the neo-Gaullist party founded by Mr Chirac in 1976, most of the UDF, the pro-European centre-right party founded by the former president Mr Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, and the free marketeers of Démocratie Libérale. The most immediate threat to Mr Juppé comes from another former RPR man, the energetic interior minister, Mr Nicolas Sarkozy.

It was at Mr Sarkozy's insistence that Mr Juppé was elected for only two - rather than three - years. And the UMP's founding congress was marred by a series of telling incidents. Mr Sarkozy's acolytes complained that his entry, to the sound of fog horns, was not projected on the giant screen. Mr Juppé strode forward to greet Mr Sarkozy as he approached the stage, stealing the limelight from him. And Mr Sarkozy annoyed the third hopeful to succeed Mr Chirac, the popular Prime Minister, Mr Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Mr Sarkozy and his wife were supposed to have sat in the second row, but they brazenly placed themselves in front, beside the Prime Minister.

The real test of the right's unity will come in 2004, with regional, senatorial and European elections. In the meantime, the creation of a single right-wing party may signal a major shift in the way French politics is conducted. Rather than the plethora of parties and leaders which until now fragmented both left and right, France may be moving towards a bipolar system like other Western democracies.

The leader of the socialist party, Mr Francois Hollande, responded to the foundation of the UMP by appealing to the left "to take conscience of its need to pull together". He proposes the creation of "a great socialist force" followed by a "contract" with the Greens, Communists and tiny Radical Left party, and, much later, "the necessary structure". In the meantime, the former components of the "plural left" are squabbling within what's left of their parties.