Small election reveals big fault lines in Sarkozy’s UMP

Jean-Pierre Muller | Archival picture shows ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and former prime minister Alain Juppé during a public meeting in Bordeaux, November 2014

A by-election in eastern France has been nothing but bad news for ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party. Eliminated outright in the first round of the February 1 vote, it is now struggling to show a united front for the second round.


The Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) finished in an embarrassing third place in Sunday’s by-election in the rural Doubs department.

Squeezed out of the February 8 runoff by the candidates from the far-right National Front (FN) party and the ruling left-wing Socialist Party (PS), the UMP has been left with the uncomfortable task of telling its supporters who they should cheer on now that it’s watching the game from the sidelines.

The choice faced by France’s main opposition party after the results of Sunday’s vote has become a familiar one: Tell voters to block Marine Le Pen's surging far-right party by casting a ballot for the Socialist candidate – the so-called “Republican Front” strategy – or, to withhold their support from both sides.

Nicolas Sarkozy opted for the second alternative on Tuesday, known in France as the “ni-ni” option. The UMP party leader refused to endorse the Socialist candidate in the Doubs runoff, all the while offering stern warnings about the danger of the FN. The party would “let voters decide for themselves”, Sarkozy told members, somewhat ambiguously, at a party meeting in Paris.

However, some moderates within the UMP are uncomfortable with the idea of giving even the slightest leeway to the FN.

The country’s mainstream political parties have denounced the virulently anti-immigration and anti-Euro group as incompatible with French democratic values since its founding more than 40 years ago. Endorsing an FN candidate directly is virtually unheard of, even for the most conservative elements within the UMP.

Several prominent UMP figures decided to speak out ahead of Sarkozy's announcement on Tuesday, revealing to reporters where they stand on the prickly “Republican Front vs. ni-ni” question. This in itself was a sign of divisions within France’s conservative camp, but it is also a prelude to what will likely be a bitter clash within the UMP for the party’s 2017 presidential nomination.

The FN question

Alain Juppé, a former prime minister and central UMP figure, called on voters Monday to cast a ballot for the Socialist candidate in Doubs in order to block the FN. “It is clear to me that our main political rival now is the FN... Whether it can reach power is no longer a hypothetical question. In my opinion this would be a catastrophe for our country,” Juppé wrote on his website.

Juppé, who was France’s defence and foreign minister at different times under Sarkozy, is eyeing the 2017 presidential race, and appears to be Sarkozy’s key rival in UMP primaries next year. Juppé’s support for the PS in the Doubs runoff, a day before Sarkozy made his own announcement, proved to be the best gauge for where the latter will stand: firmly in "ni-ni" territory.

Lawmakers close to Sarkozy had already come out this week against the “Republican Front” strategy, in what looked to many observers like warm-up acts for Sarkozy’s headline announcement later on Tuesday.

Former education minister Luc Chatel, a Sarkozy political advisor, told French iTELE television on Monday that the Republican Front may have worked in the past, but that it was no longer an option for him. “The National Front is not an option, but neither is the Republican Front,” he said.

Gérald Darmanin, Sarkozy’s spokesman for his successful 2014 campaign for the UMP’s presidency, and now the party’s chief secretary, told Europe 1 radio that he “does not choose between the FN and the Socialist Party.”

Looking towards 2017

However UMP vice-president Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet told BFM television that although the decision did not thrill her, she would not hesitate to vote for the Socialist Party candidate in order to defeat the FN. Considered a moderate, Kosciusko-Morizet admitted she was in the minority position within the UMP camp, but could not change her mind about the far right.

“The Socialist Party is wearing down France… but the FN will disfigure France,” she warned on Monday. “The Socialists are rivals we can have a debate against. The FN wants us dead, nothing else.”

The dissenting opinions within the UMP reflect deep divisions not just about the Doubs debacle, but also about how to win in the future. Moderates like Juppé and Kosciusko-Morizet want to appeal to centrist swing voters to win the next elections.

But Sarkozy’s successful 2007 presidential bid owed much to his ability to seduce far-right constituents.

The UMP’s support or rejection of the “Republican Front” may eventually have little bearing on the political contest in Doubs, but they could pay a heavy price for their continued failure to define a unified strategy for beating the FN.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning