The French right prepares to choose Sarkozy’s successor (maybe)

France’s center-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a popular movement) will vote on Sunday, November 18 to choose its next general secretary in what’s widely seen as a fight to get the upper hand on the UMP’s presidential nomination in 2017. 

The UMP will choose between two key figures — former prime minister François Fillon (pictured above, top) and Jean-François Copé (pictured above, bottom), who has been general secretary since 2010.  As the contest approaches, both candidates have accused the other of fraud, marking an ugly end to what has been a dogfight within the French right.

Unlike most French prime ministers, Fillon actually remained in Matignon — the residence of the French prime minister — for all five years of the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy.  Throughout the Sarkozy presidency, he maintained or even gained approval from French voters as a competent and moderate head of government who seemed at times more grounded and focused on Sarkozy’s reforms than even Sarkozy.  Indeed, there’s reason to believe that if Fillon had contested the presidential election against the Parti socialiste‘s François Hollande, he might have won.

Fillon, age 58, both urbane and technocratic, seems to hold a clear lead over Copé, age 48 — a recent Harris poll shows Fillon with a 67% to 22% lead among UMP voters, and a wide edge among French voters generally.

Copé, mayor of Meaux, a non-practicing Jew whose mother is Algerian, previously served as budget minister under prime minister Dominique du Villepin and president from 2005 to 2007, and he’s seen as belonging to the more strident right wing of the UMP.  In some ways, that makes him more like Sarkozy, who was no stranger to pulling hard to the right on issues like immigration or crime in order to win votes.  Copé is, in fact, styling himself as the same sort of hyperactive, gritty leader as Sarkozy.  During the campaign for the UMP leadership, Copé has spoken out against ‘anti-white’ racism in France, a naked bid for voters sympathetic to the hard right, and he mocked Muslims for taking away children’s pain au chocolat during Ramadan.

As such, Sunday’s vote is a bit of a proxy contest for the UMP’s direction in the years ahead — Fillon represents the moderate center-right and Copé represents a more full-throated hard-right approach.  But the next French election is over four years away — in April 2017.  In contrast, consider: five years before 2008, no one in the United States had even heard of Barack Obama.

After all, there’s nothing stopping Sarkozy himself for running for a second term in 2017 — many French voters still prefer Sarkozy to either Fillon or Copé for the time being, and Sarkozy has indicated he may be interested.

The winner of Sunday’s contest will have a delicate task in balancing an appeal to the broad center of French voters, while not allowing other political movements steal support on the UMP’s right.  Marine Le Pen, who won nearly 18% of the first-round vote of the presidential election in April 2012 will almost certainly try to make a bid to expand her appeal beyond the narrow confines of the far-right Front national and become the strongest candidate of the French right in 2017.

Despite Fillon’s apparent lead, Copé has a coterie of strong supporters, including Chirac’s prime minister from 2002 to 2005, Jean-Pierre Raffarin – Copé served as Raffarin’s spokesman for much of that time.  Outspoken social conservative Nadine Morano, who lost her seat in the Assemblée nationale after June’s legislative elections, also supports Copé.

Perplexingly, moderate former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, who served from 2005 to 2007, and himself a famous rival of Sarkozy, supports Copé and in so doing, seemed to downplay Copé’s far-right tendencies in favor of the need for generational change within the UMP.  De Villepin himself failed to qualify for the ballot when he ran for president earlier this year.  While Sarkozy himself has had critical words for Fillon, he’s had markedly less criticism for Copé, despite the fact that Copé himself was once a Sarkozy rival.

Fillon counts among his supporters many of the members of his former government, including rising stars such as Xavier Bertrand, former minister of labour, employment and health, as well as senior figures of the French center-right such as former prime minister Édouard Balladur and former Paris mayor Jean Tiberi, who’s close to former president Jacques Chirac.  Sarkozy’s former longtime chief of staff and minister of the interior from 2011 to 2012, Claude Guéant, supports Fillon as well.

So while Sunday’s vote is important, and although Hollande’s popularity has rapidly slipped since his election as president in May, no one should get too carried away that the French right is settling on a presidential candidate for a race that’s so far away.

Other figures, such as Bertrand or former environment minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Sarkozy’s spokesperson during the presidential campaign, who failed to win the 8,000 supporters in time to qualify for the UMP race on Sunday, may be waiting in the wings hoping to emerge as the candidate in 2017.  Furthermore, de Villepin or even former prime minister and, more recently, foreign minister Alain Juppé, who declined to run for the UMP post, may also be considering a comeback.

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