As its leaders fight, France's conservative party suffers

Experts say that infighting within the conservative UMP, which was ousted from the presidency in May, could undermine its standing with the French public even further.

Benoit Tessier/Reuters
An empty podium is seen at the headquarters of the UMP political party in Paris before a news conference Thursday. For the past 12 days, the UMP has been riven by a leadership crisis that is likely to harm the party's future political prospects.

The crisis plaguing France's right-wing opposition UMP party seems nowhere near over, after several attempts in the last few days at mediation between the two men vying for UMP leadership failed. But even as the negotiations between Jean-François Copé and François Fillon go back to square one, analysts and politicians agree on one thing: It is clear that the UMP will not come out of this unscathed.

Mr. Copé and Mr. Fillon are fighting to succeed former French President Nicolas Sarkozy as leader of the right wing. The UMP, France's main right-wing party, held an internal election on Nov. 18 that both men claim they won. But no resolution appears to be in sight, despite efforts by Mr. Sarkozy, former Prime Minister Alain Juppé, and various UMP lawmakers to negotiate an end to the conflict.

Copé, who was declared the winner of the election by two commissions of the UMP, on Wednesday ruled out a plan for holding a referendum asking the party base whether it wants to vote anew for a party president after a disputed election. Copé had floated the proposal on Tuesday on the condition that Fillon give up on his project of creating a separate right-wing opposition group in the lower chamber of parliament. But after Fillon went ahead with his parliamentary group, Copé withdrew his support for a referendum.

Sarkozy has threatened Fillon and Copé to publicly say that both are unfit for running a major political party if they fail to end the gridlock by Tuesday, Agence France-Presse reported Friday, citing anonymous sources within the UMP.

With the stalemate still in place, the UMP looks set to suffer politically, at least in the short term.

Benoist Apparu, a UMP lawmaker in the French National Assembly and a junior minister during Sarkozy’s tenure, says the future looks grim for the UMP, although it doesn’t mean a right-wing candidate couldn’t win the next presidential election in 2017.

“Does it jeopardize 2017? I think it’s going to be very complicated but I wouldn’t go that far," Mr. Apparu says. But "we will have a hard time getting back on our feet before 2014," when the next local elections occur, he adds.

Polls show the UMP infighting has had a devastating impact on the image of both Copé and Fillon among the public.

A Nov. 23 survey by the polling group BVA Opinion found the popularity of Copé had plunged by 22 percentage points since early November while Fillon’s decreased by 11 percentage points. BVA Opinion found Copé was popular among 26 percent of those surveyed, down from 48 percent in early November, while Fillon was popular among 52 percent of those surveyed, down from 63 percent.

Céline Bracq, the associate director of BVA Opinion, says the decrease in Copé’s popularity is “huge” while that of Fillon is “fairly spectacular,” adding that the image of the two men could continue to worsen as the crisis drags on.

“These two men didn’t have the ambition to be popular within their own camp, but rather to be able later on to represent their own camp in a presidential election,” Ms. Bracq says. “And now, given what is happening, they are spoiling their chances, that’s clear.”

Despite the UMP’s inability to find an undisputed leader, the BVA Opinion survey found the French largely oppose a political comeback by Sarkozy, which many in the UMP have suggested is the best resolution to the stalemate. While UMP supporters overwhelmingly support the former president's return – 73 percent are in favor, according to the survey – 65 percent of the public oppose it.

“The best that Nicolas Sarkozy can do for now is to stay away from all this and wait a bit before envisioning a potential comeback,” Bracq says.

Under the French political system, the president has sweeping powers, while the parliament is a relatively weak institution with very few means, if any, for the opposition to keep the governing party from passing bills. Therefore, the current crisis within the UMP – even with Fillon's group splintering off 72 seats from the UMP's 194 it held before the infighting began – doesn’t affect the Socialist party’s ability to pass and implement new laws. But it is the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, France’s current political system, that lawmakers of a same party have split up into two separate parliamentary groups.

Bernard Lachaise, a professor of contemporaneous history at the University Michel de Montaigne Bordeaux 3, says leadership crises and harsh talk between politicians are nothing unusual in French politics, although with the current infighting at the UMP “what can appear as newer is that it’s [happening] within the same political group.”

Fillon belongs to the moderate wing of the French right and likes to say that he had posters of former right-wing French President Charles de Gaulle hanging on his bedroom walls when he was a teenager. Copé is considered more conservative and promotes what he calls an “uninhibited right,” which his opponents say amounts to appealing to far-right voters.

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Mr. Lachaise says the fact that Copé regularly goes out of his way to stress that he belongs to the right wing is relatively new in French politics. Historically, Lachaise says, the French right has always tried to reach out to voters across the political spectrum, but this tradition started to slowly disappear with the rise of the far-right National Front in the last quarter-century.

“It’s a claim that you didn’t see during General de Gaulle’s time and even at the time of Jacques Chirac,” says Lachaise, referring to two former right-wing French presidents.

Jean Garrigues, a professor of contemporaneous history at the University of Orléans, says French political parties under the current political system have become tools for winning a presidential election, rather than acting as think tanks where policies and political platforms can be elaborated. That is why the crisis within the UMP is likely to last as long as Copé and Fillon fiercely oppose one another for the chairmanship of the party, according to Mr. Garrigues.

“It is going to last for a while because neither of them has any reason to give up on their presidential ambition,” Garrigues says. “The objective is 2017.”

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