Rolling news TV channels and morning radio talkshows are loving it. For the past 10 days, the two rival factions battling over the leadership of the main conservative opposition party in France, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), have been running from one microphone to the other to attack the other side.It all started on 18 November, the day 180,000 party members voted to choose their new leader following a string of major election defeats – including that of former president Nicolas Sarkozy to his Socialist challenger François Hollande. That night, everything went wrong. When Jean-François Copé, the outgoing secretary general, went on TV to declare his own victory, he was followed 10 minutes later by François Fillon, Sarkozy’s prime minister for five years, who said it wasn’t true, that he was the winner. Each side accused the other of fraud, particularly after it was discovered that three overseas federations had been “forgotten” from the counting.
Since then, the war of words has only become more acrimonious. Fillon said that a political party cannot be run as a “mafia gang”, and Copé hung on to his disputed victory, repeating every five minutes that he “opened his arms” to his rival. On Tuesday, the two sides went one step further towards a breakup as Fillon formed his own parliamentary group, with 68 members out of 229 MPs elected last June. Whatever happens next, the surprise comes mainly from the violence of the fight, not from the split itself. Ambition and ego prevailed over the need to built a strong opposition, which is what the right needs to make a comeback. Despite political differences between Copé’s “uninhibited right” and the more classical managerial style of Fillon, it all comes down to a fight between those two men.
The French right has always been a battlefield, with ideological and personality clashes all along its history. The current fifth republic itself started with extreme rightwing attempts on the life of its founder, General Charles de Gaulle, in the early 1960s, following his decision to grant Algeria its independence. The list of bitter rivalry and treason between high flying political parties’ contenders is long indeed.
The birth of the UMP was supposed to turn the page on years of rivalry by bringing all the components of the right and centre-right under one umbrella – and one leader. Sarkozy certainly was the man for the job, seizing opportunities like a field marshall and crushing any opposition without hesitation. His leadership was abrasive, authoritarian, undisputed. Those who tried to stand in his way, such as former prime minister Dominique De Villepin, were quickly dealt with and marginalised.
Copé thought he could be the new Sarkozy. But despite his quick wit and strong organising skills, he’s not ruthless or charismatic enough. Today, he stands as the shaky party leader of a ruined battlefield, blamed as the “bad guy” in most opinion polls, with a political credibility close to zero after he recently adopted far-right positions.
Everyone agrees that the only man capable of saving the party is none other than Sarkozy himself. The former president has officially disappeared from the political scene, preferring the more lucrative conference circuit, but has kept a close watch on the Paris ring. He’s let his anger be known, but has not yet gone into battle, undoubtedly analysing the best options for his own future.
Until he does, both the new UDI centrist party led by former Sarkozy minister Jean-Louis Borloo and Le Pen’s National Front are welcoming disenchanted UMP members, Meanwhile Hollande, the increasingly unpopular Socialist president, surely is enjoying the show.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.