The French right's lose-lose election

Former president Sarkozy's UMP party is torn apart by the trial of strength between former PM Fillon and Party chair Copé. Both have claimed victory in last week's extremely tight election, pointing to several cases of fraud. Many fear this might result in an implosion of the party and a reconfiguration of the French right.

Best enemies Jean-François Copé and François Fillon. Wikimedia Commons/Marie-Lan Nguyen and Demotix/Guillaume Chagnard. All rights reserved.Best enemies Jean-François Copé and François Fillon. Wikimedia Commons/Marie-Lan Nguyen and Demotix/Guillaume Chagnard. All rights reserved.

The soap opera started on Wednesday 21 November in the afternoon on all French news channels. Startled viewers watched live as the brawl exploded between the two challengers for the presidency of the historical conservative party UMP (Union for a Popular Movement). The two princelings who craved to succeed their mentor, defeated president Nicolas Sarkozy - his former prime minister François Fillon and UMP chair Jean-François Copé - had been accusing each other for two days of fraud, each having proclaimed their victory by a few handfuls of contested votes in the intra-party elections held on the previous Sunday. Suddenly, these usually bland politicians who, till then, had played second fiddle to “Sarko”( who had appointed both of them, playing one off against the other) went ballistic live - giving us a much more thrilling show than any Brazilian telenovela.

For a while, things appeared to have calmed down, both men finally agreeing to a recount under the supervision of the last veteran of neo-Gaullism, former prime minister and UMP co-founder Alain Juppé, who had stayed away from this first real internal election by the French right till the end of last week. But a cautious Juppé set conditions which had to be fulfilled by Sunday. Yet anger was so high and the difference between both men so slim that it was difficult for any of them, and their supporters, to agree to the victory of their rival and his clan. A victory for any of them, even through Juppé's mediation, would also have been, at best, Pyrrhic, ridiculed and discredited as they are - even if, as the French saying goes”, “le ridicule ne tue pas”, “ridicule does not kill”. Not to mention the fact that Juppé himself, after several mishaps in his political career, might have dreamt of becoming the saviour of the party he helped to create alongside President Chirac. But on Sunday evening, Juppé announced that his mediation had failed, as neither Copé nor Fillon were willing to compromise. The future now looks uncertain, with Copé still claiming to have won the vote and Fillon threatening to take the matter to the court. How did the French right get here?

It was a ghastly week for the UMP. The worst perhaps in half a century for the successor of general De Gaulle's UNR party. It went even worse for them than I – or Juppé – feared. First, this internal election which was supposed to have been well planned and to boost the, now, opposition party collapsed into a farce. Then the following day, Mr Sarkozy himself was summoned by a magistrate under suspicion of having abused a 90-year-old millionaire – the heiress of cosmetics company L’Oréal – in order to illegally finance his 2007 presidential campaign. The good news for him is that, after an inglorious whole day's grilling, he was not indicted. The bad news is that it was only because the judge thought he did not have enough evidence yet to do so, and that “Sarko” could also be brought back to court later for the illegal financing of Edouard Balladur's 1995 presidential campaign – of which he was then the spokesman.

This could hardly have happened at a worse moment. At a time when France is limping through the most severe economic and social crisis for decades and its president, Socialist François Hollande – 'François' seems a very popular name among politicians these days – and his government are dropping dangerously in opinion polls, the UMP has been launching offensive after offensive to regain lost ground, pretending that they have a better solution for “saving” France - even if they had not been able to come up with one while they were in charge, from 2002 till last May. Instead of capitalizing on a well organised and publicized election which would have led to a smooth transition between Sarkozy and one of his heirs, giving UMP a more democratic look after having been ruled since the beginning by a strong leader, both are bogged down into a bitter civil war - to the great, and unexpected satisfaction of battered socialists and ultra right National Front, (FN) for whom this is a gift sent from heaven. But also for a rejuvenated centre right recently unified – but for how long? - in a new Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI).

In fact, nothing has really worked as expected. Pollsters had predicted that Fillon, the most popular conservative figure, would win heads on, by up to two thirds of the votes. Too complacent, he had overlooked two crucial points; first that UMP party members are much further to the right than its sympathisers (who were the ones interrogated in the pre-election polls) and, so, favoured Copé and his hard “right with no hang-ups”, law and order, anti-immigrants, anti-Islam platform. And, second, that the man who controls the party machine, and thus vote-counting if not votes themselves, holds a powerful edge. Thus the outcome, which gave Copé a less than 100 votes majority out of about 180,000 voters, allowed him to proclaim himself the new “president” even before results had been officially proclaimed. It seems obvious that there were irregularities from both sides. But, when disappointed Fillon learned that the election control commission led by a senator - a former law professor specialising on the Soviet Union! - had “forgotten” to count 1,304 votes from three remote French territories in the South Pacific which would have given him the edge by two dozen votes, he went wild, alleging fraud and demanding a recount under an independent body. Otherwise, he said, he would go to court.

Angry words, threats and even insults have been exchanged between Fillon, who referred to Copé as “Mr Secretary General” and roundly denounced his “Mafioso behaviour”, while Copé addressed Fillon as “Monsieur” and not the usual “François”. Some in Fillon’s team are now openly calling for a party split. A former Sarkozy adviser supporting Copé replied that, “the door was wide open” for those who wanted to go. As everyone knows, there is nothing more bitter than a civil war and, today, no one could rule out the demise of what was built a decade ago as the most formidable party machine ever seen - from forcing together almost all the French centre and conservative parties. Now the French right can rightly claim to be, once again, “la droite la plus bête du monde”, “the most stupid Right in the world”, even managing to outsmart a Socialist Party also well known for its internecine conflicts. You might remember the farcical 2008 Rheims Congress, in which Martine Aubry defeated former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal in a similarly disputatious fashion.

Since De Gaulle was returned to power in 1958 the French right has been ruled by a strong man who - directly or by proxy through a weak and faithful protégé – controlled a highly disciplined party. De Gaulle’s MPs were even nicknamed “godillots”, i.e. “army boots”, because they so obeyed the beck and call of the president’s orders. This system, which lingered on till Sarkozy, has few chances of surviving him. In order to better control his camp, he has used political weaklings as prime minister – he even once called Fillon a mere “assistant” – and party head. A former Chirac man, Copé obtained the position by promising to actively support “Sarko"'s re-election. Which he faithfully did. So, UMP voters only had the choice between two grey personalities, one, Fillon, playing the moderate card and the other following Sarkozy’s hard right strategy to regain support from the FN. Ideology lagged far behind personal ambitions, some moderates siding with Copé, some hard-liners with Fillon.

At first sight, Sarkozy’s tactics seem to have succeeded, paving the way for another try for the presidency in 2017 by having his former protégés self-destroy each other. While he did not officially support either of the two, for whom he does not have much respect, he sent some of the faithful, including his son Jean, to support Copé. But, now, his power base is also in a shambles, his party has been ridiculed and might have lost credibility for some time, members are divided and demoralized, supporters bitter and devastated. Now, as centre left daily “Libération” editorialised, "Sarkozism" might be dead.

This might be a blessing for ambitious “non-aligned” “quadras” (politicians in their 40's) who could play on the traditional slogan, “Sortez les sortants”, “Out with the old, failed politicians”. But only if they can come to an agreement among themselves. One, Laurent Wauquiez, sided with Fillon, three others, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Xavier Bertrand and Bruno Lemaire remained on the sidelines. They can hope to play on the frustrations of voters who believe that France’s situation is serious enough to concentrate on fundamentals, on finding solutions for the present economic crisis rather than on petty party bickering. And on the necessity to restore a responsible image to an UMP ridiculed by the present farce - through wiping the slate clean of a discredited historical leadership. If is not too late.

Because, whoever comes out as a winner of this “chaos” (as headlined by conservative daily Le Figaro), what legitimacy could be hoped for by a Fillon or a Copé elected with 50.1% of the votes, against an opponent beaten by a margin of 0.01% -  and yearning for revenge? How can any of them reunify a party so divided? Not to talk of the possibility, increasing as the crisis lingers on, of an implosion which would split a mighty UMP into two rump parties competing for the same voters?

As usually moderate and middle of the road political commentator Olivier Mazerolle also exploded live last week on news channel BFM-TV: “We are fed up with this kind of day to day French politics! I am also a journalist and I am sick and tired just like anybody else, I've had enough of having to comment on this nonsense. That’s it!”

UPDATE : On the evening of 26 November, the UMP internal election commission (COCOE) declared Copé to be the winner after a recount. However, François Fillon and his supporters still reject this result, and they have announced the launch of their own parliamentary group at the French Assemblée Nationale. Many analysts believe this is intended to pressure Copé into accepting a new vote to be held in a few weeks.

About the author

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde