After Sarkozy, Will France’s Conservatives Turn to the Far Right?

Warnings of "antiwhite racism" by one of two contenders for the leadership of France's main conservative party spark controversy

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Jean-Yves Bonvarlet / Reuters

France's former Prime Minister François Fillon, left, and UMP party head Jean-François Copé attend a meeting during the UMP parliamentary day in Marcq-en-Barœul, northern France, on Sept. 27, 2012

When a long-ruling party is trounced in both presidential and legislative elections, the result is often a brutal leadership battle amid a desperate search for new direction. When it comes to France’s conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), the current fight for control of the party is also becoming a struggle over whether it remains anchored in the mainstream right, or tethers itself to long-taboo moorings of the extreme-right National Front (FN).

Questions about the UMP’s future have swirled since Nicolas Sarkozy lost his presidential re-election bid to Socialist François Hollande in May. The existential crisis grew deeper when the left ended the UMP’s decade hold on legislative power in June. That rout left Socialists and their allies dominating France from the national governments down to the local level — and humbled stunned UMP backers who are now groping for a way to remain politically audible and relevant.

That search has given rise to a full-fledged clash between two influential conservatives vying to take over the post-Sarkozy UMP during voting for the party leadership in November — and navigate it into 2017 general elections. In one corner stands Sarkozy’s former Prime Minister François Fillon, 58, a traditional conservative and neo-Gaullist who stresses economic reform, labor flexibility and moderated spending as the only way to save France’s welfare state. In the opposing corner is Jean-François Copé, 48, the outgoing UMP leader whose more deregulated market prescriptions and supply-side economic philosophies are considerably more liberal than those of Fillon. But despite their differences on otherwise generally overlapping conservative policies, Copé has now dramatically distinguished himself from Fillon by staking out positions and using language straight out of the FN playbook.

(MORE: After Socialist Romp in Elections, France’s Conservatives Face Existential Crisis)

This past week Copé created a stir with revelations from his new book, Manifesto for an Uninhibited Right, in which he at times sounds uncannily like FN leader Marine Le Pen. Most notable of the book’s controversial sections is Copé’s contention that “antiwhite racism is growing in French cities” — a phrase Le Pen has used in the past to accuse minority and Muslim populations of attacking and corrupting French society so often that it’s nearly her signature line.

“Antiwhite racism is developing in sections of our cities where individuals — some of whom have French nationality — contemptuously designate French people as gaulois on the pretext they don’t share the same religion, color or origins,” Copé writes in an excerpt published on Sept. 26 by conservative daily Le Figaro. “I know I’m breaking a taboo by using the term antiwhite racism, but I do so intentionally, because it’s the reality some of our fellow citizens live with, and remaining quiet about it only aggravates their trauma.”

Copé — one of the main forces behind France’s 2010 law banning full-body Islamic garments like the burqa and niqab in public — clearly anticipated denunciations that he is seeking to drag the UMP toward the expanding voter base supporting Le Pen and the FN. Indeed, the book features Copé urging fellow conservatives to be “freed of political correctness — that established order imposed by the lofty-minded left to assure its domination.” Copé also scolds those he expects to criticize his foray as the kind of people who live in affluent cities like Paris, where minority residents are extremely rare and “antiwhite racism” nonexistent. In disaffected, ethnically diverse places like the Parisian suburb of Meaux where he’s mayor, Copé argues, “the situation is inverse,” and a white resident will often “feel like a foreigner in a neighborhood she’s lived in for years.”

(MORE: Erasing Sarkozy: François Hollande Legislates His Predecessor’s Policies into Oblivion)

Copé’s incursion into what’s long been considered off-limits FN turf generated protest from the left and right alike. Socialist Senator François Rebsamen told the Web-interview program Orange–Le Figaro that Copé’s stance echoed “people far to the extreme right who demand the defense of white people.” Cope’s flirtation with FN policies has also clearly created discomfort within the UMP itself. On Sept. 26, former Sarkozy Environment Minister and outspoken FN foe Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet recoiled from Copé’s warning of “antiwhite racism” when she told TV news channel i-Télé, “I don’t much like that kind of term.” And in a Sept. 28 interview with online media, Fillon noted that while he wasn’t “shocked” by his UMP rival’s views, he still warned “it’s not by copying extremists that we’ll convince our voters, or even those who vote for the National Front.”

Copé isn’t the first UMP leader to be accused of seeking to annex policy from the extreme right. Indeed, one of the most controversial — and ultimately self-defeating — campaign moves by Sarkozy was seeking to woo Le Pen voters to his side by adopting anti-immigrant, Euroskeptic, even Muslim-stigmatizing themes dear to FN hearts. With that recent memory in mind, Le Pen depicted Copé as a similar UMP opportunist who halts his usual attacks on the FN in order to score easy campaign points by embracing the party’s positions.

“The cynicism of this man is without limits,” Le Pen told Le Monde on Sept. 26. “And in terms of electoral flip-flopping, he learned well from Nicolas Sarkozy.”

If so, that doesn’t bode particularly well for Copé’s re-election hopes as UMP leader. Sarkozy lost his bid, after all. In the meantime, polls show Fillon with a handy lead with voting just two months away. And while past nods toward the FN by UMP officials tend to be better received by party members than by the general public, a key to Sarkozy’s presidential defeat was the defection of traditional conservatives who considered his attempted seduction of Le Pen backers too outrageous to forgive.

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