Sarkozy's party split as far right steals its votes
President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party is in disarray ahead of the second round of local elections Sunday. Sarkozy has refused to back Socialist candidates if they face far-right candidates in the run-off but Prime Minister François Fillon and other ministers are having problems toeing the line.
The cantonal elections choose members of the relatively obscure general councils and – with a record 55 per cent abstention in last Sunday’s first round – failed to arouse strong passions in the electorate.
But the results were bad news for the UMP, which saw its voters defecting in droves to the far-right Front National (FN).
Just what the party doesn’t want to hear ahead of next year’s presidential election, where Sarkozy hopes to represent his party again, despite a long stream of opinion polls showing his popularity getting closer and closer to the floor.
The cantonal results mean that FN candidates will face a Socialist in 394 run-offs on Sunday. But despite his frequently declared attachment to “republican values” – usually understood not to be shared by the far right - Sarkozy said that his party will not call for a vote for the centre-left to keep the FN out.
Fillon, on the other hand, on Monday called on UMP voters to “vote against the FN” and other UMP big guns have echoed him. Newly appointed Foreign Affairs Minister Alain Juppé, who is also mayor of Bordeaux, called on voters in the region around his fiefdom to vote for a “republican candidate” – meaning anyone but the FN.
The small centre parties which are allied to the UMP have criticised Sarkozy's stance, reportedly increasing his exasperation with their most high-profile representative, Jean-Louis Borloo, whom he sacked as Ecology minister last December.
And Sarkozy isn’t just annoyed with Borloo. He rapped his ministers’ knuckles at Wednesday’s cabinet meeting, according to right-wing daily Le Figaro, telling them they had no right to express “personal opinions” and adding that they could not fight the far right by taking the high moral ground.
Fillon and Juppé played down differences after that meeting. Their version was that it was now clear that no-one was calling for a vote for FN.
But a letter to sympathisers from UMP General Secretary Jean-François Copé stressed that there would be no “republican front”, while also ruling out any alliance with the FN.
Recent opinion polls showing a rise in support for the Front’s new leader Marine Le Pen had already persuaded the UMP to beef up the right-wing rhetoric.
Interior Minister Claude Guéant has excited controversy by describing the air strikes on Libya as a “crusade”. Several other party leaders have made references to illegal immigration and the relationship between the secular French state and the country’s Muslim population in public statements.
Sarkozy’s sworn enemy former prime minister Dominique de Villepin says that all this shows that the fundamental difference between the UMP and the FN no longer exists.
“Forty per cent of sympathisers feel close to the FN, which means that there is now porosity, a dyke has burst and this is something to worry about,” he said on Wednesday.
No one is expecting next Sunday to bring good news for the UMP and that is likely to mean a further shift to the right in Sarkozy's campaign to be reelected.