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In the shadow of Sarkozy, UMP picks new leader

Photo: AFP

Relegated to France’s opposition after losing this year’s presidential poll, the conservative UMP party voted to pick a new top leader on Sunday. Ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy continued to loom large in this divisive race of succession.


France’s conservative UMP party voted to pick a new leader in an internal election that members hope will mark a turning point after a string of painful defeats that have left it in the opposition. However, former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s name continues to loom large in the contest and threatens to handicap the party’s ability to stage a political comeback.

Sunday’s vote pitted former prime minister François Fillon, 58, against UMP party boss and MP Jean-François Copé, 48. Results were yet to be announced on Sunday night, but election forecasts have consistently presented Fillon, who has portrayed himself as a centrist that can bring together the group’s divided ranks, as the race’s frontrunner.

Nevertheless, analysts say results could be a lot closer than expected and the party admits it lacks a clear picture of the eventual turnout. “It’s difficult to know how many people will go to the ballot box, but we do know that there are around 280,000 eligible voters,” a UMP spokesman told France 24 by telephone on Wednesday.

The vote will officially decide who will head the UMP as France’s main opposition party for the next two years, but Fillon and Copé are widely viewed as fighting for the right to challenge President François Hollande for the country’s top job in 2017.

While the election is seen as critical to the slumping UMP, a survey by the French polling firm Ifop earlier this month revealed that 57 percent of card-carrying UMP party members and less than half of unaffiliated right-leaning voters had expressed interest in the event.

Seeking a boost in opinion polls Copé has courted controversy with comments about supposed rampant anti-white racism in France’s poor suburbs and the excesses of Muslims during Ramadan.

During the campaign Copé also published a book roughly translated as “A manifesto for an unabashed right-wing” that many say aims to win over sympathizers of France’s anti-immigration National Front party – a strategy that paid off for Sarkozy during his successful 2007 presidential bid.

A strong, third-place finish by the far-right Front under the leadership of Marine Le Pen is one of the factors that led to Sarkozy’s re-election defeat this year.

Sharp divisions on similar platform

The current duel between Fillon and Copé reflects competing tendencies extant within the UMP since its founding in 2002. These two factions have found themselves increasingly at loggerheads following defeats in mayoral, legislative and presidential elections over the past four years.

The party describes itself as a broad political tent housing both centrist and right-wing tendencies: traditional Gaullists concerned with upholding the social model France built in the wake of World War Two alongside economic liberals who want an economy more oriented towards the private sector.

According to Thomas Guénolé, a professor of political science at France’s prestigious Sciences Po university, Fillon and Copé above all embody contrasting governing styles.

“François Fillon represents a continuation of the model of the Fifth Republic, with a president that gives broad guidelines and a strong prime minister in charge of carrying out the plans. Copé represents much more of a corporate model, with a president busy managing everything,” Guénolé said.

Despite their differences, the UMP candidates nevertheless share very similar campaign platforms. On the economy, both agree on massive spending cuts, revising France’s 35-hour work week, and loosening labour laws. In the social arena they are both against giving foreigners the right to vote in local elections and oppose same-sex marriage.

Early results from Sunday’s election were to be given after all of the 600 polling stations across France closed around 6pm (1900 GMT) but had yet to be announced late on Sunday because of delays in the voting process.

The ghost of Sarkozy

While Fillon and Copé’s campaign teams have exchanged sharp barbs over the past weeks, they are also facing an invisible rival in ex-president Sarkozy. Since he was unseated by Hollande in May, Sarkozy has mostly kept his unofficial promise to quit politics.

Nevertheless, the flashy and charismatic former president remains very popular among UMP members, and many among them have publicly called for his return to the heart of the group. According to another survey by Ifop, as many as 53  percent of right-leaning voters would like to see Sarkozy –and not Fillon or Copé– be the UMP’s presidential nominee in 2017.

The specter of Sarkozy’s eventual return has loomed so large over the UMP succession race that Fillon and Copé have been forced to answer the question of what they would do if Sarkozy expressed his wish to return to the Elysée Palace.

The different responses have presaged a potentially fratricidal war for the party. While Copé has said he would step out of the way and get behind Sarkozy, Fillon has expressed his intention to be the UMP’s presidential nominee in five year's time.

Sarkozy’s unsuccessful 2012 campaign veered hard toward the political right, costing him the support of centrist voters as well as moderate UMP members. After ex-prime minister Dominique DeVillepin’s departure from the party, prominent environment minister Jean-Louis Borloo and one-time rising political star Rama Yade also exited the tent.

With the UMP set to crown its next leader, curious eyes will be watching to see whether Sarkozy will crash the party.

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