France’s beleaguered opposition party, the right-wing UMP, on Tuesday formally voted to install a trio of former prime ministers to run the party as it struggles to disentangle itself from a string of scandals.
Senior members voted nearly unanimously for Jean-Pierre Raffarin, François Fillon and Alain Juppé (pictured) to take “provisional control”, with the help of new secretary-general Luc Chatel, until the party’s extraordinary congress in October can choose a new president.
The decision was touted as a victory for consensus, with Raffarin saying problems had been “overcome by a collective will” and Chatel talking of a “calming solution”. Fillon tweeted that it was “a group decision, a clear mandate, for unanimity: beautiful evening for the UMP!”
In fact, the three-man leadership was the only way the party could balance the competing claims of its warring factions, says French political analyst Olivier Rouquan, of the Paris-based Institute of Public and Political Management: “It’s the only possible way for the party to avoid a crisis.”
And it was certainly overstating the case for Raffarin to claim the decision meant “the UMP is saved”, given that the party of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy remains dogged by allegations of financial skulduggery and abuse of power, as well as internal wrangles over its longer-term leadership.
One of its own senior members, former candidate for mayor of Paris Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, yesterday suggested the party’s situation was so dire it needed to “turn the page” with fundamental reforms, including changing its name.
The party has been in a leadership crisis since Sarkozy stepped down after he lost the presidential election in 2012. Last month, its then-leader Jean-François Copé was forced to quit over the “Bygmalion affair” scandal, with allegations that the party ordered a communications agency – Bygmalion – to produce fake invoices to cover up more than 10 million euros in over-spending during Sarkozy’s election campaign.
A lawyer for Bygmalion told a press conference that the party had used “financial blackmail”, threatening the agency with non-payment if it did not go along with the scheme. Copé, who has denied knowledge of any wrongdoing, was the party’s secretary-general at the time. The issue “could have judicial consequences” for the party, Rouquan says.
Meanwhile Sarkozy himself, who is widely believed to want to run for president again in 2017, has faced accusations that he received illegal financing from both French L’Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt and former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi during his first presidential campaign in 2007.
Sarkozy was cleared of personally accepting cash-filled envelopes from Bettencourt but his former campaign treasurer is still awaiting trial over the issue.
In another damaging development, in March French investigative website Mediapart reported that alleged secret recordings of Sarkozy's calls to his lawyer showed he tried to interfere in the investigation into the Bettencourt affair by using informants inside the justice system.
Sarkozy’s ratings fall
Sarkozy’s popularity ratings are increasingly fragile, with a BVA poll published in French newspaper “Le Monde” at the weekend finding that nearly a quarter of French people overall (23 percent) would prefer to see Alain Juppé at the helm of the party, with only 14 percent favoring Sarkozy and 12 percent Fillon.
He remains more popular, however, with right-wing voters (25 percent compared to 17 percent for Juppé and 12 percent for Fillon).
Says Rouquan, “The idea that Sarkozy [can] keep the same political strength and support that he had in 2012 or before is wrong … and Juppé and Fillon are working in the shadows to win support [for themselves] from members of Parliament.”
The UMP party was shocked to take a battering in the recent European elections, coming second with French voters behind the far-right National Front party headed by Marine Le Pen. Rouquan says the party’s challenge is to re-motivate its sympathisers and develop “a new dynamic that wins right-wing votes”.
He likens the UMP’s situation to that of America’s Republican Party, which he says has moved further to the right as a result of Tea Party politics. “This is a global evolution, not just in France but in Europe and the rest of the world; as voters face risks and fears, the right-wing population is becoming more conservative all around the world,” he says.
Date created : 2014-06-11