French right struggles for Europe message

UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope (centre) with top party officials Image copyright AFP
Image caption The UMP is trying to patch up a damaging internal rift

Europe is proving a divisive issue for France's UMP, the main conservative opposition party.

Euroscepticism is seen by some UMP politicians as a weapon to lure voters back from the far-right, anti-EU National Front (FN).

Some in the UMP say the EU should be much slimmer - six members at most.

Others believe France should forge new alliances and drop unwieldy Germany for a lighter partner - the UK possibly.

With just weeks to go before the European elections there is pressure for UMP candidates to present a clear position on the EU.

Eurosceptic voices are growing louder and bolder within the party, which is traditionally pro-European.

Xavier Bertrand, former health minister, says he no longer believes in the French-German pas-de-deux at the heart of the European project.

"It's not the be-all and end-all of French politics," he told the JDD (Le Journal du Dimanche) newspaper on Sunday. "Take energy - I don't see how we can have a common policy when our interests are so different."

Overall support for the EU among the French has dropped from 62% before the 2008 financial crisis to 41% in 2013, according to a Pew research survey. That is two points below the percentage for the UK in 2013.

Amid tensions between the new Socialist government and Brussels, the UMP is keen to capitalise on voter dissatisfaction, as it appears to be in a tight race with Marine Le Pen's FN.

Last week a poll put the FN on 24% for the European elections, ahead of the UMP on 23%.

In the UMP no one is yet talking about leaving the European Union. At most, there's a desire to renegotiate treaties, rework policies - a far cry from David Cameron's proposal to organise a UK referendum on EU membership.

Today the UMP leader Jean-Francois Cope held meetings to hammer out a common stance on Europe.

Yet some feel it might be time to recall the ex-president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

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