A Winner, but Little Unity, in Battle to Lead French Conservatives

After 24 hours of chaos and fraud allegations, Jean-François Copé is re-elected leader of French conservatives with gestures to the far right that divides his camp.

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Benoit Tessier / Reuters

Jean-François Copé, center, at the UMP political party's headquarters in Paris on Nov. 18, 2012

French conservatives have chosen their leader, but both the chaotic process that involved and small margin of victory of winner Jean-François Copé have created the risk of a split on France’s right in the coming months. For now, however, backers of Copé — the incumbent head of the Union for a Popular Movement party (UMP) — are celebrating his win over former Prime Minister François Fillon by just 96 votes out of nearly 175,000 cast.

The final count, announced Monday night, ended 24 hours of confusion surrounding balloting marred by accusations of fraud and manipulation by both sides. The situation then morphed into one described by many French pundits as “surreal” and “burlesque” when both Copé and Fillon declared themselves winners, and called on each other to concede defeat and join the victor in reuniting the divided French right. That tense atmosphere didn’t change a great deal in the wake of the UMP election commission announcing Copé’s victory.

(MORE: France’s Right-Wing Civil War Leadership Vote Plunges the UMP into Chaos)

“It’s now time for the electoral period to end, and time for work to begin, starting tomorrow morning,” Copé told elated supporters Monday night, as he savored an outcome that defied months of polls predicting a large Fillon romp. “It is in that state of mind that I telephoned François Fillon this evening. It is in that state of mind that I asked him to join me.”

That didn’t look likely to happen any time soon, as Fillon acknowledged his defeat amid what he again described as fraud-tainted voting and deep internal divisions. “Beyond the many irregularities in this election that I’ve seen, what strikes me most is the now evident fracture our political camp is now experiencing,” Fillon said. The apparent bitterness behind Fillon’s statement is normal — and perhaps temporary — given the messy nature of the voting count, and accusations of cheating that flew in both directions awaiting a final tally. Indeed, given the high emotions involved — and disappointment in seeing what had long been viewed as a slam-dunk Fillon win transform into final defeat — many political analysts predicted the former Premier will eventually calm down, fall into UMP rank behind Copé and help the French right battle ruling Socialists.

Be that as it may, the “moral and political fracture” within the UMP Fillon referred to is real, and could well expand to the breaking point yet. Both before and during the fight for party leadership, Copé distinguished himself with emphatic gestures in the direction of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front on issues of immigration, minorities, and Islam’s influence in French society. Similar bows were made during the re-election campaign of former UMP champion, former President Nicolas Sarkozy. That tactic not only sparked controversy but also was viewed as instrumental in sewing Sarkozy’s defeat, as traditional conservatives fled his campaign in dismay.

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

The increased volume with which Copé broadcast such messages as the UMP vote approached led Fillon to warn his rival about using “the language of division.” Fillon also scolded UMP members considering abandoning the French right’s historic shunning of the National Front as xenophobic and offensive to Republican ideals. Copé persisted, and even won the nickname “Le Pen au chocolat” after recounting a story of a French youth falling victim to “white racism” when thugs stole the pastry he was snacking on to enforce Ramadan fasting. It wound up being a winning posture for Copé.

But the Fillon-Copé split on the UMP’s attitude toward the National Front and the positions dear to its voters has also been seen deep within the wider party as well. Two different caucuses have formed within the UMP vying for the status as the hardest-right current — and militating for the party to veer harder in Le Pen’s direction. In reaction, many traditional conservatives and centrists have quit the UMP and joined the new Union of Democrats and Independents party.

Such defections are expected to increase in the wake of Copé’s win, though it’s still unclear whether that will create sufficient tensions and ruptures to cause the UMP to implode. Whether it does or not is now up to Copé, and his decision whether to lead the UMP mindful to all its internal currents and sensibilities — or to navigate the party according to his own ideological landmarks and political vision.