Leadership vote divides French opposition | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 20.11.2012
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Leadership vote divides French opposition

A vote to decide who will lead France's conservative opposition UMP ended in chaos after both candidates claimed victory. Jean-Francois Cope was ultimately declared winner. The loser is the UMP.

"Tense" and "crazy" was how various French newspapers, from Le Figaro to Le Monde, described Sunday night's vote count. Political commentators and party activists sat gripped as first Jean-Francois Cope and then Francois Fillon claimed victory in the conservative UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) election.

The party's electoral commission eventually suspended the count with the chairman telling reporters that 50 percent of the regions were still missing.

On Monday (19.11.2012), the party's internal electoral commission picked its way through accusations of vote rigging and disorganization in certain electoral colleges, including Nice and Bouches-du-Rhone, both in southern France.

By Tuesday, however, the vote was final: Cope, of the "uninhibited right," had defeated the moderate Fillon, 50.03 percent to 49.97 percent.

Internal strife

About 300,000 party officials turned out to vote, or more than 50 percent of members, in what was a toughly fought and sometimes acrimonious election.

France's ex President and former UMP leader Nicolas Sarkozy, (Photo: REUTERS/Eric Feferberg/Pool)

Is Nicolas Sarkozy waiting for a second curtain call?

Les Echos, a business newspaper, and the center-left daily Le Monde said that with accusations of vote rigging running rife, this election echoed the contested 2000 US presidential election in Florida.

Other papers recalled the socialist primaries four years ago, when a dispute between Martine Aubrey and Segolene Royal meant that both women also claimed victory in a vote "tainted with irregularities."

Some have pointed to that messy power struggle as the point when Francois Hollande started to increase his power base, building up to the eventual defeat of his former life partner, Royal, to win the French presidential election earlier this year.

A 'disaster'

"This is a disaster for the UMP and the French right," Michel Wieviorka, director of the elite institute for social sciences (L'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales) told DW. "Behind this organizational disaster, there is an ideological and political crisis."

"There is a double division at play here. First, the party is hesitating about pursuing ever more right-wing policies, a la Jean-Francois Cope, or a more classic right-wing position which is embodied in Francois Fillon. But it's also a division between the party's activists and their own electorate. All the polls that have been taken gave Francois Fillon a lead with the French electorate, so this clear cut difference with what the activists have been voting means there will be many problems in the future."

As if to acknowledge the importantance of this election, Fillon, the former French prime minister, told the press: "The French people are watching us. We do not have the right to announce the result before those in charge of the vote," - evidently taking a swipe at his rival, Cope, who just a few hours earlier had declared "a clear victory."

Sarkozy the silent winner?

French President Francois Hollande speaks at a press conference at the Elysee Place in Paris (Photo: AFP MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images)

How good is this for Francois Hollande's ruling socialist party?

The question of who really benefits in this kind of internal party wrangling will depend on which political viewpoint you hold. Some French analysts are saying that the biggest beneficiary is former president Nicolas Sarkozy himself, as he's demonstrated that no one else can lead the UMP effectively. So could he be expecting a second curtain call, waiting off stage for the drama to subside? Some have even gone as far to say that this might be him preparing the ground for a future political comeback, perhaps for the presidential election in 2017.

What is clear, said Florian Philipott, the deputy leader of the far-right Front National (FN), on France 24"is [that whoever is] elected president of the UMP will have no legitimacy whatsoever, given that he will be in charge of a party broken in two."

But Wieviorka disagrees. "This is not a problem of leadership - they don't lack leaders. The problem is about political definition. This is an ideological crisis, and the second problem is one of organization - this is a party which just doesn't work like a party any more."

Who really benefits?

Wieviorka goes on to say that the problems over the vote could benefit several different currents in French politics. "For the Socialists, this is quite a pleasant situation [allowing them to focus on tensions in the right], but it won't give them much more support overall."

With support dipping after the initial euphoria of winning the elections, Hollande's socialists will probably be pleased at every helping hand to bolster their standing in the country. "What is more interesting is the center," Wieviorka adds. He believes that there is too much emphasis on dividing French politics into a raging battle of left and right and that overlooks the center ground, which is also a force to be reckoned with. He says this election race could actually benefit the centrist parties, giving them "more space" now that Jean-Francois Cope has been declared winner.

Marine Le Pen, France's National Front leader (FNP) (Photo: REUTERS/Jean-Yves Bonvarlet)

Will Marine Le Pen's FN benefit most from the disarray in the French right?

But he believes the most crucial thing to focus on is the evolving relationship between the right and the far right in a process he calls "right-i-fication."

"Jean-Francois Cope has been pursuing this line - that was sketched out under Nicolas Sarkozy - and as a consequence, this strategy is panning out in a kind of ideological meeting with the FN. Whether this ideological meeting will turn into a political meeting, it's too early to say, and who knows if it's really in the FN's interest." But he says that the most likely scenario is that the "far right will play on this perceived weakness within the UMP, by casting themselves as the party with a strong homogenous backbone," which can provide something that the classic right seems to be lacking.

The FN's vice president, Louis Aliot, certainly seems to think so. He told Le Monde that what was going on in the UMP was "not disagreeable to us". He reportedly believes that "a lot of people who have previously voted UMP will draw their conclusions in front of this 'show' and will leave their party to 'come and fight at our side.'"

Divisions on the Right

Although both candidates were advocates of liberal free market policies and economic reform, the gulf widened when it comes to social issues. Cope espoused Sarkozy's populist approach on immigration and pushed for integration within the Muslim community.

In a manifesto published last month, he attacked "anti-white racism" in poor immigrant dominated areas of France, the kinds of "banlieues" which were the scenes of riots, burning and violence under Sarkozy's presidency. Francois Fillon painted himself as the liberal candidate of the "classic right," a person of unity, and an "experienced statesman." Such a caricature, however, has also allowed his critics, Cope first, to liken him to Francois Hollande. The comparison is meant to emphasize a perception of boringness and lack of strong decision making.

President before partisan

While some continue to view the UMP's power struggle positively, the intra-party consensus is largely negative. "The UMP is in difficulty. You can't beat around the bush," said one of Cope's supporters, Eric Ciotti, to Le Monde.

Former Prime Minister and UMP member Alain Juppe seemed to agree when he wrote on his blog, "All through this campaign, what has become apparent is that the two candidates have not so much been thinking about the future of the UMP, but by who might be the Presidential candidate in 2017."

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