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Ex-French PM's 'strategic' softening on far right

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-09-17

Former French prime minister François Fillon has upset many in his centre-right UMP party by calling for an end to its policy of treating the far-right National Front as a political pariah, but analysts see it as merely a tactic.

Former French prime minister François Fillon – a known centrist – caused a political storm last week when he called on his centre-right UMP party to abandon its long-held policy of treating the far-right National Front (FN) as a pariah.

But, according to one political scientist, the move does not signify a drastic shift to the right for the UMP but a tactical attempt to undermine his rival, the former president Nicolas Sarkozy, ahead of the 2017 presidential election. Fillon has said he will stand as a candidate.

“François Fillon is making an attempt to dominate the political discourse on the right,” Olivier Rouquan, senior lecturer at the French Higher Institute of Public and Political Management, told FRANCE 24. “It’s a tactic as old as politics itself.”

National Front gains in the polls

France is due to hold local elections in the spring of 2014. Polls predict the FN to score highly as it rides a wave of popularity on the back of record unemployment, mounting concern over crime and support for its traditional anti-immigration and anti-EU policies.

Traditionally, mainstream French parties have tired to steer voters away from the FN, whose founder and former leader Jean-Marie Le Pen has been repeatedly convicted of racism and Holocaust denial.

In the 2002 presidential election, when conservative candidate Jacques Chirac found himself facing Le Pen in the second round, the Socialists told their voters to turn out and vote for the centre-right candidate they had opposed in the first round.

In the case of a run-off being between the Socialists and the FN, the UMP has recently advocated that its supporters abstain on the basis of the "ni-ni" or "neither-nor" rule – voting for neither the FN, nor the PS.

A ‘trap’

Fillon's crime, in the eyes of many in his party, was to suggest that the policy be dropped in favour of telling UMP supporters to vote for the "least sectarian" candidate, effectively opening the door to centre-right votes being transferred to the party now run by Le Pen's daughter Marine Le Pen.

Fellow senior members of the UMP  rounded on Fillon after his statement. Alain Juppé, another former centre-right prime minister, said he was “astonished” that an experienced politician like Fillon could fall into the “trap” of lending tacit support to the FN.

And UMP Party Leader Jean-Pierre Raffarin said at the weekend that Fillon had “crossed a red line” and tweeted that “sanctioning the FN would split the UMP”.

Undermining Sarkozy

“Yes, I’ve taken a risk,” Fillon told French daily L’Opinion on Tuesday. “I accept that many in my party will not like it, but I could never bring myself to criticise a French citizen for voting for another French citizen.”

He added that as a politician he had spent his “entire life fighting the FN”, and that his comments were not meant to endorse the party.

According to Olivier Rouquan, Fillon’s comments are a carefully calculated attempt to consolidate his popularity among more conservative UMP supporters ahead of the 2017 presidential election.

“Fillon wants to undermine Sarkozy, who is positioning himself for a return to politics, by using the former president’s own strategy, namely of appealing directly to UMP supporters who may be tempted away by the FN,” he said.

The strategy would make sense, Rouquan added, in view of a September 13 BVA poll that revealed 70 percent of UMP supporters wanted their party to “normalise” relations with the FN.

“This does not mean that Fillon himself is shifting to the right,” Rouquan said. “His centrist stance is well established.  A couple of controversial statements are not going to destroy this reputation.

"He is simply reaching out to those voters who may be tempted to stray to the far right and away from the UMP.”

Neither would his stance on the FN threaten to split the UMP, said France’s leading expert on the far right, Jean-Yves Camus.

“The UMP has always been a coalition of disparate centrist and conservative political positions,” he told FRANCE 24. “It’s a party that has never set out a uniform ideology. There is no risk of the party fragmenting that has never been truly homogenous.” 

Date created : 2013-09-17

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