|Party leadership clashes outre-Manche have always seemed noisier affairs than their British counterparts. Quiet treachery has characterised the dispatch of Tory party leaders, even the Iron Lady. All Tory leaders live with the whisper of imminent challenge – currently, David Cameron with the telegenic idiosyncracy of London Mayor Boris Johnson. The leadership selection process itself is comparatively muted. Nor has political betrayal been unknown on the French Right – Chirac on Chaban-Delmas; Sarkozy on Chirac. But contrast this with the open warfare across the UMP, seemingly on the sole basis of who believes they have the right to lead the party.|
Much has been made of the shambolic balloting which ensured neither candidate could claim victory outside even a generous margin of error. Yet, despite the uncounted ballots of New Caledonia, the electoral ghosts of Nice 1ère, and the somewhat embarrassing sentence for ‘abus de faiblesse’ by the chair of the Commission de Recours – incidentally, a situation that no observer of British Parliamentary politics would now arrogantly rule out as impossible in the ‘Mother of all Parliaments’ – the likelihood of a straightforward run-off between the two candidates, however well organised, was always slim.
Whilst there are obvious differences between the ‘social gaullist’ Fillon and the harder liberal Copé, splits in France’s mainstream Right party are certainly no more entrenched than in a British Conservative party cleaved by polar opposites on Europe, gay marriage, drugs policy and whatever else. But only since the awkward innovation of coalition with the Liberal Democrat party have these divisions again started to imply party schism, much to the undoubtedly over-optimistic delight of Nigel Farage and UKIP on the Tories’ Right.
Any expectation that the causes of the schism are resolved now Messrs Copé and Fillon have agreed a timeline to the rerun are naïve. This temporary resolution is one borne only of necessity – financial, to avoid the UMP’s empty coffers falling further into the red through separation of R-UMP’s Parliamentary allocation, as well as tactical, to stem a potential haemorrhaging of disgruntled members to a gloating FN aux bras ouverts. The broader political divisions between the two would-be leaders and their coteries remain, as do their respective convictions that their leadership alone will bring the UMP renewed electoral success.
Copé remains most comfortable cloistered amongst the militants – at least, his militants. Fillon’s horizons extend beyond the party. As the UMP’s Parliamentary Group leader and then General Secretary, Copé has invested his political future entirely in UMP support. However, as many leaders beyond France have found, what mobilises the party may not work so well for the electorate. Indeed, the conservative Right internationally are all increasingly encountering a demographic and attitudinal disconnect between their core supporters and the wider population. Witness the realisation of US Republicans last month that those they represent now make up a dwindling minority of the electorate.
Fillon, misleadingly given a clear win by most opinion polls, partly fell victim precisely to the membership not mirroring all UMP supporters, let alone the broader electorate. But it is also this imbalance which convinces him of his right to lead the party into 2017. Conversely, despite Copé’s parlous plunge in opinion ratings to 20%, he may yet draw solace from his former leader’s own desperate ratings not having precluded a revived, if ultimately defeated, presidential defence. Moreover, militants do not believe opinion polls – and voters have notoriously short memories. Fears that this year’s debacle will have direct consequences for the 2017 Presidential race are over-stated. Even the 2014 municipals are not necessarily beyond rescue – and the recent partielles successes for the Right show the focus of voters’ concerns are as much with the Socialist executive.
Either Copé or Fillon – September needs a winner. Fillon’s standing depends largely on whether the party apparatus allows him to function. Any hint of quiet treachery à la British Tories, or a perception that ‘ce parti politique, c’est toujours une mafia’, and December’s truce is broken. The compromise of running filloniste délégués alongside Copé’s executive is a necessary fudge for Fillon, but potentially destined to deadlock the party throughout the summer, and only six months from the municipals. Neither Pécresse nor Wauquiez seem likely to sit idly by should the copéistes look to move the party, surreptitiously or otherwise, in their leader’s favour. Negotiations have reached their conclusion before the trêve des confiseurs: the two leaders would do well to use this period now to consider the demands a nine-month ceasefire has put at their door.
This article originally appeared in translation in Le Nouvel Observateur online