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French opposition head for bruising leadership battle

Following a double electoral defeat in May and June, France's conservative UMP party is to choose a new leader. A generation of up-and-coming party members hopes to challenge the old guard.


 France’s conservative opposition UMP party, defeated in May and June’s presidential and parliamentary elections, is set for further upheavals this autumn when its members vote to choose a new leader. 

François Fillon

The election will take place in November when party members vote for a general secretary and two deputies.

While the position of general secretary does not automatically guarantee candidacy in the next presidential election, leadership of the party at this early stage is a strong indicator of who the next UMP presidential candidate might be.

Whoever is at the helm will also have a strong influence over how France’s right-wing policy will evolve over the next five years in opposition and need to heal a party bruised by the defeat of former President Nicolas Sarkozy. However, there are also fears that a leadership vote could lead to a damaging round of mudslinging among the favourites, which the party can ill afford in the wake of the Socialist victory and a National Front on the rise.

Jean-François Copé

Current favourites are Sarkozy’s former Prime Minister François Fillon and current party leader Jean-François Copé.

While Fillon seems to be the leading candidate – an IFOP survey of UMP members on July 19 put him at 62% - Copé enjoys the support of former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who told left-leaning daily Le Monde on July 22 that Copé “has a bit of [former President] Jacques Chirac in him.”

‘A new generation’

The anticipated duel between these two traditional stalwarts of France’s right will not be a clear-cut battle however, as a growing number of younger candidates are lining up, hoping to cement both their positions at the heart of the UMP and to shape the party’s future.

Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet

On July 21, former Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (known in France as NKM) announced her bid for the leadership, telling Corsican daily Corse-Matin that a “battle of personalities” between Copé and Fillon would lead to “great disharmony” within the party.

The UMP, she said, needed a “third voice” in the race to enable “a new generation to emerge” and revive the party’s fortunes after the election defeat. She said she particularly wanted to see a greater number of women in the higher echelons of the party.

Kosciusko-Morizet said she would not join Sarkozy’s former Justice Minister Rachida Dati’s push to present three female candidates under the banner of the “A droite… toutes” [Everybody... to the right] movement [the UMP contains a number of “movements”, from the centrist “Humanists” to the strongly conservative “Droite Populaire”].

While admitting that the UMP had “a problem prioritising women”, she told the newspaper that “you don’t fight sexism by using the same tactics”.

UMP needs ‘profound renewal’

Bruno Le Maire

Another former minister, Bruno Le Maire, has also declared his intention to stand in November’s vote.

“I want to put forward some new ideas before announcing it officially,” the former agriculture minister told Reuters on Monday, adding that “our party desperately needs a profound renewal” in the wake of Sarkozy’s ouster.

The current Secretary General Jean-François Copé said he was encouraged that there was a growing list of candidates, despite wanting to keep the job for himself.

“I am overjoyed that people of such high calibre are interested in becoming leaders of the party. I have total respect for them,” he told Reuters.

Potential candidates have until September 15 to declare their intention to stand. They need the support of some 8,000 party members (out of around 264,000) for their applications to be valid.


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