At the weekend the Sunday Times gave a whole broadsheet page to French politics. Six columns were dedicated to a sneering report on Francois Hollande, to the effect that the socialist president’s popularity was in freefall and the nation could be soon seeking bailouts. The other column went to French tycoon Arnaud Lagardère who apparently has a fiancée much taller than him. It comes as no surprise then that the once most respected of British newspapers is today part of the Murdoch stable.
However the real story of political interest on Sunday wasn’t at the Elysée Palace or indeed at Chez Lagardère but at the election count for the next leader of France’s Conservative opposition party the UMP – Union pour un Mouvement Populaire. The BBC correspondent in Paris, Hugh Schofield, in his report described events thus: “Watching the results come in was like seeing a really crummy disaster movie. The events were terrible, but it was so bad you just wanted to laugh.” It is his turn of phrase that makes up this article’s headline.
First a bit of history. In Britain all our main three political parties are to say the least well established. The Conservative Party was formed in 1834 but traces its roots to the Tory Party which started in 1678. The Liberals grew out of the Whigs in 1859. Even the new kids on the block, the Labour Party, was formed in 1900.
In contrast in France whilst it has long established socialist and communist parties the groupings on the right change with the wind. I am old enough to remember De Gaulle’s splendidly named Rassemblement du peuple francais. He formed that party in 1947 but by the time he left politics in 1970 he had lead three different parties of the right: all anti socialist and communist. So when we talk of the fight to lead the UMP, the party of Chirac and then Sarkozy, we are speaking of one that is just a decade old.
The reason this election to choose the new leader of the UMP created such headlines is both candidates claimed victory a day before the final result was declared and then accused their rival of fraud and ballot-stuffing. The right-wing candidate Jean-Francois Cope finally came in ahead of former Prime Minister Francois Fillon by just 98 votes and the UMP has been badly damaged by the fiasco.
I asked Pierre Kanuty who is in charge of European and international relations at the Parti Socialiste in Paris for the left’s take on these events. Pierre also started with the historical context. He told me: “One needs to understand that as a matter of fact, there has never been a true conservative party in France though we have a strong right wing party. All of them have been presidential organisations dedicated to ensure networks aimed at one man’s victory.
“In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Gaullist MP’s needed a political frame for campaigning so they created the UNR (Union for a New Republic), followed by the Union of democrats for the Republic.
“In 1976, Jacques Chirac organised his party, the RPR (Gathering for the Republic). His first success was to be elected as mayor of Paris. The rest of the history is well know, the RPR used municipal jobs to have manpower for the party and got money from many companies to fund the party and its campaign. They also cheated many times on local votes in Paris.
“The following year Valery Giscard d’Estaing, President of the Republic at the time formed his own party, UDF (Union of the French democracy).
“Chirac’s RPR was depicted by its founder as the “French social democracy” supposed to be more leftist than the UDF. The truth there was always a conservative – neo liberal wing and a centrist, pro-welfare state fighting each other within the RPR and the UDF.
“The rise of a successful conservative revolution in the UK with Thatcher and in the US with Reagan gave them hope, but the electoral cost was very high as the French conservative voters still wanted a strong state even if they were in favour of strong tax cuts.
“The crisis of the conservative leadership is a very long story, but as long as the parties were dominated by high figures like Chirac, or Sarkozy, it was easy to reduce it to childish games.
“In 2001, the RPR decided to merge with centre right UDF to form the UMP. Some of people from UDF refused to join, claiming there was room for a true centre party that eventually became the MoDem led by François Bayrou.
“Nicolas Sarkozy took over the party and he organised it as a war machine entirely aimed at the 2007 victory. Renewal of ideas, networks, activists, communication and media strategy, nothing was left behind. But the main thing was to assume a true neo liberal and neo conservative ideology.”
With the defeat of Sarkozy in May by Hollande and the defeated president’s subsequent resignation from the party leadership obviously the UMP had to seek a new leader. All parties after defeat lick their wounds, rally round a new leader and move on. What went so disastrously wrong for the UMP?
Pierre explained: “As long as Sarkozy was President, he was also the true leader of the Conservative Party, and obviously when he left, his succession had to be secured. But it is a tradition in the right, no heir, no successor. Conservative leaders like Jean-François Copé were too busy thinking about their own career, focusing on 2017 the year of the next presidential elections.
“François Fillon, former prime minister comes from a social conservative background, but as Sarkozy’s Prime minister, for five years, he implemented a neo liberal policy and, even if he ended his term with a better popularity rate that Sarkozy, he was symbolically defeated since his old constituency was won by a socialist candidate, Stéphane Le Foll who became minister of agriculture. Fillon decided to target an easier place to be elected in the “bourgeois” Paris’s 7th district and Quartier Latin as a first step for a further fight : being mayor of Paris in 2014.
“Jean-François Copé never left his home town, in a Paris suburb. With his “uninhibited right” he’s ready to do whatever it takes to grab the extreme right National Front’s voters.
“The vote of 18th November was a opportunity for UMP members to choose for the first time their leader without any electoral pressure as we are only six months after the presidential and legislative elections. The rules of procedures were very hard. Each candidate had to be endorsed by almost 8,000 party members representing 10 local branches at department level. The 265,000 party members could vote in 650 polling stations. Only 176,000 persons voted.
“The socialists with less party members (around 150,000) had more than 3,000 polling stations in their vote on the leadership one month earlier. This is one of the reasons of the mess.
“The means never matched the needs. Copé finally won with only 50,03 %, just 98 votes ahead.
“Such a small margin requires a huge effort to bring legitimacy to the new leader. If there is no surprise in Copé’s victory, it shows that the leadership crisis is not over yet since somebody can argue that the “minority” represents 49.97 % of the party.”
I leave the final word on this debacle to Pierre:
“In the 1980’s, there was a slogan saying “the French right is the dumbest in the world”. Seems it is still accurate.”
(The above article was published in the London Progressive Journal on November 20 2012).