France’s Right-Wing Civil War: Leadership Vote Plunges UMP into Chaos

Allegations of voter fraud add further bile to the leadership race for France's main conservative party, as it chooses between its neo-Gaullist roots or drifting towards the far right of Marine Le Pen

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Benoit Tessier / Reuters

An empty podium at the headquarters of the UMP political party in Paris as a news program airs an interview with former French Prime Minister François Fillon, who runs for the party's leadership post, on Nov. 18, 2012

The election accusations are flying both fast and furious: reports catalog allegedly falsified results, disappearing ballots, polling stations with higher tallies than registered voters, while both candidates declare victory as their backers attack the rival camp as cheats.

No, that scene isn’t unfolding in a corruption-plagued banana republic, nor in a developed country with an established record of democratic deficiencies. Instead it’s taking place in France, where the campaign to take control of the nation’s main conservative party has collapsed into scandal-tainted chaos. As a result, six months after their incumbent champion Nicolas Sarkozy was defeated in his presidential re-election bid by Socialist François Hollande, leaders and members of France’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) are now confronting an embarrassing and potentially debilitating split over the party’s leadership — and questions over its increasingly fragile future.

Central to that battle is outgoing UMP head Jean-François Copé, who faced off with Sarkozy’s former Prime Minister François Fillon for the leadership post. Polls long showed the 58-year-old Fillon favored to win the race by double figures. But partial results of voting by 300,000 party members were so close Sunday night that Copé depicted the unexpected lift his bid received as a sign of further momentum to come and declared himself the winner. That forced Fillon to follow suit with a victory statement of his own. As Monday evening neared, the UMP still had two testy men claiming to be sole party boss — and as such, the right’s presumptive presidential candidate in 2017.

(MORE: After Sarkozy, Will France’s Conservatives Turn to the Far Right?)

The political drama has only served to highlight the uncertainty surrounding the voting results. Any outcome seems certain to face political and legal challenges amid continued accusations of cheating by rival camps. On Monday morning, Copé himself joined that chorus by citing fraud in areas where voting was overseen by UMP officials backing Fillon.

“It’s called stuffing the ballot box, and I must say it’s really deplorable,” Copé on Monday morning told BFM TV of what he claimed were irregularities in Paris and the region around Nice — both places were where pro-Fillon UMP officials hold sway.

Back at you, responded Fillon. Before ballot counting was temporarily suspended in the wee hours of Monday, Fillon denounced “major dysfunctions posing serious doubt about this election.” Later, Fillon spokesman Jérôme Chartier maintained “massive fraud” in two important districts had benefited Copé. Supporters of both candidates have also stepped up with public charges of cheating, manipulation and political robbery — offering an astounded French public the rare sight of some of France’s leading conservative politicians in open confrontation with one another. Not everyone was amused.

“I call on François Fillion and Jean-François Copé to immediately cease the invectives,” pleaded former conservative Premier — and UMP founder — Alain Juppé on Monday, telling TV station i-Télé that “the very existence of the UMP is in question today.”

Juppé isn’t joking. Coming as it does just six months after presidential- and legislative-election defeats ended the right’s 10-year hold on power, the Fillon-Copé clash is in many ways about whether the UMP remains rooted in traditional mainstream conservative turf or shifts far rightward by embracing themes and positions closer to those of National Front leader Marine Le Pen — or comes asunder altogether. In many ways, it faces the same existential questions about direction and vision as the Republican Party in the U.S.

(MORE: More On the State of the GOP)

Fillon favors modernizing the UMP’s neo-Gaullist social and economic tenets, though his emphasis on fiscal discipline and reduced state spending doesn’t share Copé’s boundless faith in unfettered markets. Meanwhile, Fillon has criticized what he’s termed the dangerous and “divisive” moves by Copé to embrace favored Le Pen topics like immigration, minorities and the influence of Islam as threats to French society. Yet that controversial Copé tack isn’t new.

Copé was a driving force behind France’s 2011 law banning full body- and face-covering Islamic veils like the niqab and burka. Copé has also championed contentious stands relating to Islam and Muslims — positions Sarkozy took up in the name of French secularism during his re-election campaign. But that nod to Le Pen supporters drove many appalled traditional conservatives from Sarkozy’s bid, contributing to his defeat to Hollande.

Still, Copé has reinforced that strategy in the UMP leadership race. In October he published a manifesto urging the right to shed the constraints of “political correctness” and denounce what he calls “antiwhite racism” in neighborhoods with large minority populations. He later recounted a story of a white youth being prevented from snacking on his pain au chocolat pastry in public by (presumably Muslim) thugs enforcing daytime fasting during Ramadan. Objecting bloggers ridiculed the tale as fabricated and swiftly dubbed Copé “Le Pen au chocolat.”

Fillon repeatedly lectured against using “the language of division,” and appeared to have convinced a majority of UMP members to back his vision of traditional conservatism shunning the National Front and its themes. But as vote counting resumed Monday, it was still very unclear which contender would come out atop the UMP. Legal recourse by the eventual loser to contest the result is considered probable.

Whatever the outcome, the eventual disintegration of the UMP remains real. Two different caucuses within the UMP have already formed, boasting status as the party’s hardest-right faction. Both of those stand to grow larger — or break away — if the more moderate Fillon prevails. Meanwhile, in September former Sarkozy cabinet member Jean-Louis Borloo founded the Union of Democrats and Independents party and has attracted scores of his fellow centrists who quit the UMP — as well as conservatives troubled by the party’s drift in Le Pen’s direction. Those ranks are expected to swell further in case of a Copé victory.

Who wins from the UMP turmoil? Sarkozy for starters. Since his May defeat, Sarkozy has repeatedly stoked speculation he may return to politics in time to reunite the fratricidal right with a 2017 presidential bid. It’s also balm for Hollande, who sees relentless media coverage of his plummeting approval ratings and gaffe-prone cabinet shift to the UMP’s woes. That may mark the first and only time Sarkozy and Hollande have ever occupied common ground — a shared view not likely to amuse Fillon or Copé.

MORE: Why a Cop Is France’s Favorite Politician

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