Can Copé reunite Sarkozy’s UMP after acrimonious leadership vote?
The narrowest of victories, after a chaotic leadership election marred by allegations of fraud, will in no way make the job easy but Jean-François Copé is a political animal in the Sarkozy mould, mostly unencumbered by doubt and clear about where he wants to take France's mainstream right-wing UMP party.
“All of that is now behind us,” he said. “My arms are open … I do not believe at all that there is a risk that the party will split.”
Copé claimed to have received several messages from members of parliament who had supported former French Prime Minister François Fillon in the duel for the UMP party leadership.
They had assured him they would now work with him, he said.
But the freshly elected leader knows that it will be some time before anyone works with anyone.
Fillon’s campaign director, Eric Ciotti, has already dismissed as “grotesque” an idea floated by Copé on Tuesday that his defeated opponent might like to accept a post as one of two new party vice-presidents.
Ciotti has also hinted that he might sue for defamation after supporters from both sides traded accusations of electoral fraud during Sunday’s vote.
Even Copé’s supporters are aware that the issue of his legitimacy cannot be so easily shrugged off.
“There is no leader after these elections,” said former Sarkozy advisor Henri Guiano, who is a Copé supporter, “There is a [party] president but not a charismatic leader who can bring everyone with him, the void left by the former president has not yet been filled.”
Indeed, many analysts assume that Sarkozy himself, who deliberately stayed well above the fray and well away from microphones, must be delighted with the result.
“Après lui, le chaos,” jokes Tuesday’s edition of the left-wing Libération newspaper.
They may mock but wishful thinkers on the right have begun to fantasise that the former president might ride to the rescue of his party and the country in time for the 2017 presidential elections.
Some UMP supporters, though, are confident that the party will recover easily.
They note that the Socialist Party lived through a very similar situation in 2008 when Ségolène Royal contested Martine Aubry’s victory in their party leadership battle.
The two women remained political enemies until this year, but sniping between their relative supporters did not stop the party winning this year’s presidential and legislative elections.
So what will Fillon do now?
In a brief declaration conceding defeat he alluded to the “fracture” within the UMP party and said he intended to reduce it or overcome it but left his future role in politics open to different interpretations.
Many of those who supported Fillon favoured his moderate tone and dislike Copé’s more confrontational style, particularly on issues relating to France’s Muslim population. There is speculation that Fillon might now form some sort of alliance with centrist MPs but the centre of French politics is already very crowded with disaffected former right-wingers.
Socialist Party leader Harlem Désir, happy to be commenting on another party’s misery, on Monday night expressed his hope that “this election will halt the escalation which has marked this internal election campaign, and its dangerous ideological drift”.
Commentators on all sides worry that France needs an opposition party in good shape in such difficult economic times.
For Copé, the result, he said this morning, is “a point of departure, not a point of arrival”.
He is often compared to Sarkozy – he’s a confident media performer who appears to enjoy the spotlight and a challenge. He will need both characteristics.
If he is to succeed as party leader he must not merely paper over the cracks that became apparent in this campaign but seek to persuade his party colleagues that dragging the UMP further to the right is a winning electoral strategy.
Some in the party are muttering that, apart from Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential win, the party has not won a single election since it began that rightward swing.
Others point out that the political centre of gravity in France has shifted clearly to the right. The combined vote for right-wing candidates exceeded the vote for left-wing candidates in the first round of the May presidential election, even though Hollande, a Socialist, eventually carried the day.
On Tuesday, Copé set the tone. “Now it is time to win over the hearts of the French people again, following a clear political line, the one I call the uninhibited right: proud, which does not apologise for itself.”
Copé’s idea appears to be that Sarkozy won in 2007 by winning back working-class voters who had begun to turn to the Front National, the likes of butchers and bakers who rise early, work hard and complain that too many people are on state subsidies. Sarkozy then blew it by giving cabinet jobs to left-wing politicians and especially by slowing down his reform programme in the wake of the 2008 world economic crisis.
Copé's supporters maintain that Sarkozy lost the 2012 election because of a style that many perceived as vulgar and because he was not right-wing enough until the final weeks of the campaign.
Copé, not Sarkozy, championed France’s famous burka ban and Copé frequently raises issues surrounding the integration of France’s Muslim population, the largest in the European Union. His famous “pain au chocolat” story during the election campaign attracted near-universal criticism.
The problem now for the UMP is that it is squeezed between a resurgent Front National under the telegenic Marine Le Pen, a hotchpotch of centrist politicians and a Socialist president, François Hollande, who is already veering to the right to placate the international money markets.
During campaigning for the UMP leadership, Copé supporters labelled François Fillon as a “François Hollande of the right” - the inference intended was that he was an affable consensus-builder who avoided tackling thorny issues. He was painted as an old-timer, a party baron who had lost touch with the party’s grassroots. Copé energetically courted party activists.
It was a clever strategy because Fillon seemed to forget that, although polls put him well ahead among UMP sympathisers, only card-carrying party members were allowed to vote for the leader.
Many of them, still smarting from Sarkozy’s defeat, chose the candidate who most closely resembled him, Jean-François Copé.