UMP split: The fundamental flaws in the French right

Francois Fillon, 27/11/12
Image caption Francois Fillon has set up a rival faction within parliament and split the UMP

Only six months after its leader was ejected from the presidency, the French centre-right UMP party has split and could be on the verge of disintegration, after a bitterly divisive leadership battle.

French politics is an alphabet soup of lost and forgotten causes.

Only a handful of academics can recount the entire list of parties and movements that have existed over the years.

Here - off the top of my head - are a few: RPR, RPF, UMP, UDI, CDU, PS, MRC, MDC, MRP, PR, PG, PCF, DL, UDF, NPA, LO, CPNT, MDF, FN, Modem, NC…. And that's just a start.

Most are transient entities. The Socialist Party (PS) sounds ancient but it was founded as recently as 1971. Before that it was the French Section of the Workers' International (SFIO). And who remembers them?

All of which is a way of reminding ourselves that if - after the train-crash of its leadership election - the centre-right UMP should go the way of most French political parties, it would not exactly be unprecedented.

Lacking soul

The UMP, after all, is itself just 10 years old - and even in that short period it has undergone a name change.

Image caption Jacques Chirac (r) ran for president against his former boss Valery Giscard d'Estaing in 1981; they both lost

The party was created to unify the right behind President Jacques Chirac after the shock election of 2002, when the far-right's Jean-Marie Le Pen came second.

For the first few months it was called the Union for a Presidential Majority. Only after legislative elections of that year (which it won), did it become the Union for a Popular Movement. Of course the initials remained the same.

Today the UMP faces the same existential threats that have been the killing of so many previous entities: lack of tradition, lack of loyalty, lack of structure, lack of unifying ideology, but above all lack of leader.

Under the presidential system created in 1958 by Charles de Gaulle, French parties have become - in essence - promotional machines for the uber-ambitious.

The left - with its collective traditions - struggled with this idea but succumbed. The right has always had less of a problem.

Thus the Gaullist party (it had various designations) was the vehicle of de Gaulle; the UDF was Valery Giscard d'Estaing's; the RPR Mr Chirac's. And the UMP - from 2004 when he took it over - was Nicolas Sarkozy's.

But since May this year Nicolas Sarkozy has gone (for now at least).

And what the current fiasco proves beyond question is that neither of the two pretenders to his succession - Jean-Francois Cope and Francois Fillon - has anything like the authority to replace him.

Cope's tactical victory

The dispute between the two men has been portrayed as a battle over ideology.

Image caption Nicolas Sarkozy and Dominique de Villepin did their best to destroy each other

Under the conventional reading, it has been Mr Cope the rightist, flirting dangerously with the ideas of the National Front, against Mr Fillon the responsible man of the centre.

In fact it is more complicated than that. Among Mr Cope's supporters there are centrists; and among Mr Fillon's there are right-wingers. Careers and friendships are the main considerations.

Mr Cope has certainly positioned himself on the right. His new book is about "freeing the right of its inhibitions", and he has raised provocative issues such as supposed anti-white racism.

But if you look at his past, there is no clear line.

Mr Cope has been a liberal when it suits, a Sarkozist or anti-Sarkozist depending on the weather, and now a rightist because that is the way he feels the wind is blowing.

Because the other big lesson from the internal election is that UMP members (at least the 150,000 who took part) are much further to the right than the parliamentary party.

On 18 November party members also voted on five separate political programmes, and by a large margin the greatest number (28%) of ballots went to the most right-wing manifesto (the so-called Droite Forte motion).

In other words Mr Cope read the runes. Ruthlessly, he appealed to the rightward-drifting party faithful, and he won. To be sure he only just pulled it off - and in conditions that are contested - but the fact remains: today the leader of the UMP is Jean-Francois Cope.

If he is intelligent - and he is - Mr Cope will now tack back towards the centre in order to recapture the lost political ground.

But the damage has been done. His manner of achieving victory has alienated not just the half of the party that is Fillonist, but also many potential voters.

It is too early to consign the party to the dictionary of political acronyms. Some complicated procedure will probably be dug up to allow a (r)ump of pro-Fillon deputies to sit as a separate party faction.

But the episode shows once again how flimsy are France's party formations.

Certainly for the right, the recipe from history is clear: first, find your leader.

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