Should France’s Moderate Conservatives Dump Sarkozy Before It’s Too Late?

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The U.S. Republican party isn’t the only big conservative force in Western politics experiencing divisions between its traditionally moderate majority and a defiantly rightward-leaning wing. France’s ruling Union for a Popular Majority (UMP) is similarly witnessing public clashes between internal factions generated by efforts to drive the party harder to the right. And the disunity and controversy that that has created is further complicating the already troubled re-election hopes of President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The newest—and most dramatic—instance of serious clashes within the UMP came this week, climaxing with Prime Minister François Fillon’s announcement Wednesday that he would not participate in the party’s controversial April 5 “Debate on Secularism and Islam.” Fillon’s earlier warnings that yet another French debate that risks stigmatizing Muslims was unnecessary and potentially divisive drew a public lashing from UMP general secretary and debate sponsor Jean-François Copé. During a popular evening chat show March 28, Copé accused the premier of manipulatively “striking a pose” in opposing the debate, and criticized Fillon for “not playing team ball.” Fillon went further still just 48 hours later by saying he’d effectively boycott the party’s discussion of Islam’s influence in France—and was swiftly supported by a range of UMP legislators and cabinet members who renewed calls for the increasingly disruptive debate to be scrapped.

Why? First off, because the new “Debate on Secularism and Islam” is—in the eyes of many observers—an unabashed rehashing of last year’s “Debate on National Identity.” That initiative was widely decried as an effort to lure support from backers of the extreme-right National Front party. Viewed as such, it wound up disgusting many mainstream voters for seeming to cynically cast immigrants, minorities, and above all Muslims in the menacing role as dilutors of French culture, tradition, and identity. That disapproving reaction caused Sarkozy’s already slumping approval ratings to fall lower, and further fueled the rise of National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen in polls. Despite the backfiring of that strategy, however, Sarkozy and his UMP lieutenants have continued embracing policies and themes critics say come right out of the FN’s playbook in the hopes of wooing Le Pen voters away—and continue seeing the same opposite results materialize. Now, with the 2012 presidential election just over a year away, long reticent conservatives like Fillon are refusing to go along, and are publicly calling on the president and the party to stop “chasing after the National Front.”

As we’ve noted in previous posts, the tack has largely legitimized FN policies in the eyes of a growing number of mainstream conservative voters who formerly considered anything out of the extreme-right toxic and untouchable. A major consequence of those changing views is reflected in several recent polls showing the hard-charging Le Pen eliminating Sarkozy in the first round of simulated 2012 polling, and herself advancing on to face one of several probable Socialist Party candidates. Those surveys—and Sarkozy’s unwillingness to change course—now have some conservatives openly speaking about whether the right’s only chance of retaining the Elysée  is for Sarkozy not to run and make way for someone with better approval scores—such as Fillon. Others, led by Copé, banish that idea as folly and borderline treason, and argue even for a deeply unpopular incumbent has a considerable advantage in elections over challengers. Similarly, Copé has waved off protests from all quarters—including a joint letter by the heads of all major religions in France–to call of the April 5 debate, and vowed to see it through under UMP sponsorship. Case closed.

Or not. A new poll published today indicates how staying that course is driving the UMP into a wall. Despite Copé and Sarkozy’s contention their attentiveness to traditional FN themes is responding to the leading concerns of French voters, the new survey (link in French only, pardon) finds just 13% of people citing immigration, and 17% naming crime among the major problems facing France (unemployment at 48%, and falling purchasing power at 44% are the leaders). Though UMP backers in the poll expressed slightly higher worries about crime and immigration, they remained backseat issues to economic concerns even among rightists. Not surprisingly Sarkozy’s efforts to give priority to the controversial themes to the detriment of others has not been without consequence. His rightward focus—atop his previously plummeting approval numbers—led 72% of poll participants to predict Sarkozy will be beaten in 2012, a position 54% of his own UMP supporters share.

Those kinds of figures will only further inspire conservatives like Fillon ,who urge the mainstream right to resume fighting (rather than copying) the FN. They’ll also further embolden those who believe Sarkozy must foreswear running for re-election if the right wants a chance at staying in power. For that to happen, traditional conservative candidates will have to lure a majority of their voters back to their moderate position—and without winking at the extreme-right for help. The above survey found that despite—or perhaps because of–Le Pen’s surging poll numbers, 75% of respondents flatly reject the idea of the UMP ever teaming up with the FN in an electoral alliance—a figure rising to 76% among UMP backers.

So far, the emergence of the Tea Party, and its pledges to hold the feet of GOP legislators to its hard-right fire in Congress, have not caused problems that Republicans haven’t been able to deal with. The same can’t be said for Sarkozy and his fellow FN-leaning UMP allies—who, contrary to Tea Partiers, may be the rambunctious force that ushers France’s ruling right out of power.