Far right's surge sows division within Sarkozy party

With over 200 runoffs opposing far-right and socialist candidates in local elections on Sunday, the ruling, centre-right party of President Nicolas Sarkozy has refused to call for a left-wing vote, a position many in the party are uncomfortable with.


Five days before the second round of local elections, and in the wake of a first-round electoral drubbing, France’s ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) appears rife with division. Prime Minister François Fillon (pictured above), for one, has blatantly defied runoff guidelines by President Nicolas Sarkozy.

In last Sunday’s elections, in which half of France’s 2,023 cantons, the country’s smallest territorial units, were up for grabs, the National Front (FN) set the stage for big political gains. The anti-immigration party led by Marine Le Pen won a place in the second round in 394 cantons, or one in five of all contested councils.

In half of those second-round races, National Front candidates will face Socialist challengers.

According to the conservative French daily Le Figaro, President Nicolas Sarkozy called a high-level meeting on Monday morning to establish an official position for the cantonal’s second round. The message, carried by the party's leader, Jean-François Copé, was clear: France’s ruling party would endorse neither the National Front nor the Socialist Party.

But speaking from his office later on Monday, Fillon told UMP party members faced with a local runoff between FN and Socialist candidates on March 27 to vote against the far right. “I will say it again, no vote from the right or centre should go to the far right…We need to remember our values, which are not those of the FN,” Fillon said.

Fending off attacks that the UMP was appeasing the far right, Copé told RTL radio he was not barring supporters from voting for the Socialists, but leaving the UMP’s rank and file free to take their own local pick.

A popular rift

The National Front’s recent surge has accentuated divisions within the UMP at a critical time. If relatively insignificant, Sunday’s cantonal polls are the final electoral contest before next year’s presidential race -- in which Sarkozy is hoping to secure a second term.

As with his successful campaign for the presidency in 2007, Sarkozy is expected to focus on convincing National Front members and sympathizers to vote for him.

“The UMP is confronted with a fundamental problem. It cannot seek an alliance with the National Front, which is siphoning votes from its candidates,” said Paul Taylor, an associate editor for Reuters news agency in Paris.

But fewer UMP leaders today seem to think this is a winning strategy. Some have questioned Sarkozy’s efforts to “hunt for votes on the same turf as the National Front”, as Taylor put it, and divisions within the ruling party’s leadership have been brewing for months.

Besides Fillon, a cast of UMP members have strayed off the official "cantonales" message. Former environment minister Jean-Louis Borloo, who only a few months ago was considered a serious contender for the prime minister’s office, and Senate President Gérard Larcher have called on voters to rally behind Socialist candidates facing FN opponents.

Other influential UMP figures have defended the “neither” position, including government spokesperson and Budget Minister François Baroin, Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand, and Frédérick Lefebvre, the secretary of state for trade under Finance Minister Christine Lagarde.

Speaking to France Inter radio on Monday, Lefebvre said endorsing Socialists would legitimize the National Front’s discourse. “They want us to hand the FN a gift… Because the FN thrives by stating that the UMP and the Socialists are the same thing.”

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