Old differences threaten ruling UMP party power

Less than 13 months before France’s 2012 presidential elections, the leaders of the ruling UMP party are struggling to maintain a united front.


Ministers and lawmakers of France’s ruling party Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) are struggling to preserve their camp’s unity after a row between party president Jean-François Copé and French Prime Minister François Fillon brought deep-seated divisions out into the open.

On a popular prime-time show aired Monday on Canal+ television, UMP boss Copé accused Fillon of not being a “team player” after the prime minister questioned the wisdom of holding a controversial debate on secularism and the role of Islam planned for April.

In defense of Fillon, MP Etienne Pinte went on the record saying Copé should resign “if he does not agree with the prime minister,” adding that “the sooner the better”.

These very public confrontations between UMP leaders over the secularism debate came on the heels of another internal UMP stand-off. Last week several UMP leaders, including Fillon, went off script by backing Socialist Party candidates who were facing far-right National Front (FN) rivals in local election run-offs.

“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 in blatant contrast to the official UMP position - dictated by President Nicholas Sarkozy - of endorsing neither the Socialists nor the FN candidates.

The discord on display has been described as a “controversy” by the conservative daily Le Figaro. But the left-leaning Liberation has labeled it a “brawl”,  and daily La Depeche has said the UMP is dealing with an “earthquake”, “fracture lines” and even “an identity crisis.”

Built-in divisions

According to Jean-Yves Camus, political scientist at French Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), the UMP's troubles go back to its founding in 2002, and essential differences between what he calls its two “sub-families”.

The more liberal and centrist Union for French Democracy (UDF) and the Gaullist-conservative Rally for the Republic (RPR) joined forces with the single-minded objective of backing Jacques Chirac’s bid for the presidency, Camus explains, but disagreement has punctuated the political marriage from the start.

“The UMP is not much different from the Conservative Party in the UK or the Republicans in the US. You have party members with a wide range of ideas who are trying to find a middle ground,” Camus says.

Over the last year, those built-in differences have been underscored by the creation of internal sub-groups anchored by prominent UMP leaders. Last June, former prime minister Dominique de Villepin founded the United Republic (République Solidaire) movement and more recently former ecology minister Jean-Louis Borloo revived the Radical Party (Parti Radical), a branch of the UMP.

Jean-Daniel Levy, a politics specialist at the CEVIPOF research centre at France’s prestigious Sciences Po university, adds that it is normal to see the party’s internal divisions resurface considering the party’s drubbing in last week’s local elections.

Many conservative voters unhappy with President Nicolas Sarkozy’s tenure shifted their support to the anti-immigration National Front.

“It’s a problem not just for the UMP leadership, but also for the party’s rank-and-file and among its sympathizers,” Levy said.

Falling in line for the 2012 race

According to Liberation on Wednesday, Fillon and Copé tried to lay the conflict to rest during a closed-door session of UMP legislators on Tuesday. Their joint call for party “unity” during the meeting was received with applause, the French daily reported.

Nevertheless, Fillon's office announced the prime minister would not participate in UMP-sponsored debate on secularism.

With the all-important 2012 presidential election less than 13 months away, rebuilding a divided house is an obvious priority and challenge for the UMP, IRIS’ Camus argues.

As with his successful campaign for the presidency in 2007, Sarkozy is expected to try to seduce FN supporters –a strategy that fewer UMP centrists are willing to support today.

Nevertheless, both Camus and Levy agree that the UMP leaders will set aside differences and personal ambitions to rally behind Sarkozy’s bid for re-election.

“Fillon, Copé, Borloo, they all want to be president someday,” Camus said. “But they are looking at 2017. The Right can only win if it is united, and any independent candidate would jeopardize that.”

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