So, France’s conservative party just blew up. This is surely a major story, as the French Right is one of the most successful political organisations in the democratic world even though it’s not particularly organised most of the time.
It’s common for a party that loses an election to have a bout of feuding. Out of the beating at the polls, two major candidates emerged. Jean-Francois Cope, the party’s secretary general, argued for “getting rid of the Right’s complexes” and moving closer to the FN. Francois Fillon, Sarkozy’s prime minister, argued for moving to the centre and emphasising the Gaullist heritage. This is close to the historic dividing line between the “classical right” and Gaullism, but the division doesn’t map precisely, as it’s complicated by the UMP/FN divide, and the generally loose and personality-driven nature of French rightwing politics. It might be better to think of Fillon’s supporters as conservatives, being pro-business, pro-Euro, mildly authoritarian, and varying between mildly Atlanticist and traditionally Gaullist on foreign policy, and Cope’s as identity rightists*, being much more authoritarian, less pro-Euro, but economically more rightwing, and keen on asserting national identity (e.g. by being nastier to immigrants).
As it happened, they appealed to almost precisely equal numbers of party members. That was when the trouble started.
Cope claimed victory. The chairman of the party’s election committee said he couldn’t say who’d won. Cope claimed victory again, by a bigger margin. Fillon claimed victory. Then, it turned out that the election committee had forgotten to count the votes from three French overseas territories. Counting them put Fillon ahead. He appealed to the party’s appeals committee, which is controlled by Cope’s supporters and refuses to hear him.
France watches, fascinated, as half the political spectrum rips itself apart on live TV.
Alain Juppe, elder statesman, former finance minister, current senator and mayor of Bordeaux, still a possible presidential candidate, and convicted criminal, is called in to mediate between the pair. Juppe asks them if they can agree on who is the party leader. No. He suggests they hold a new election. Cope suggests that he should just declare victory again. Fillon insists the votes from Wallis & Futuna be counted. Cope says that he wants to protest the ballots from the Riviera, where former industry minister Christian Estrosi’s influence network delivered the election for Fillon, and suggests just striking out all the “contentious” ballots. Obviously there are more people in Nice and Marseille than Wallis & Futuna. Juppe concludes that there is literally nothing the two men can agree on, and steps aside.
Nicolas Sarkozy, for it is he, returns from making money in Shanghai and gives them a deadline to agree, or he’ll denounce them as unfit to lead. Everyone assumes he’s hoping they’ll both quit and he’ll be party leader.
Fillon sends a bailiff to the UMP HQ to seize ballots. Cope’s supporters physically prevent him from removing the ballots.
Fillon accuses Cope of misappropriating a huge quantity of party funds for his campaign. His supporters join another party, the Rassemblement UMP or RUMP, which turns out to exist in New Caledonia. This is handy because the party immediately achieves the status of a parliamentary group and becomes entitled to state funding. In all, 70 senators and 77 deputies follow Fillon. Cope is left with the rump of the UMP rather than the RUMP and, importantly, all its debts.
Fillon threatens to sue. Cope suggests voting again, but not until after the local elections next year. The Socialist parliamentary group, meanwhile, get on with passing their legislative agenda, because the UMP delegation has stopped turning up to debates. And both men’s poll ratings plummet, although Fillon remains far more popular support than Cope.
What does it all mean? Well, you wouldn’t want to bet on them not finding some way to settle their differences. French conservative politics is dominated by personalities rather than organisation, and they did manage to rule for most of the 20th century. But there is certainly no effective UMP for the time being. That creates political space for Hollande and also Le Pen.
It’s very hard to predict how the crisis will affect the competition between Le Pen and the UMP; it weakens the UMP, but it also discredits the identity-rightist current around Cope and intensifies the distinction between the rightists and the Gaullists. The project of a UMP-FN alliance is only worth having if lots of UMP deputies change sides – if it just scrapes off a few, while solidifying the rest as a centre-right block, it doesn’t change very much.
*Only re-reading this did I notice that I had alluded to the extreme-right student movement, Bloc identitaire, without knowing it. In fact, some of the same people are involved.