As the UMP conservative party licks its wounds, after bequeathing the nation’s first one term President since the 1970s and a defeat in parliament which has led to the Socialists having an absolute majority in their own right, a battle has broken out within the senior ranks of the party. It’s a battle to write the history of the Sarkozy years and to shape the party’s direction going into the next campaign in 2014, but more importantly, the run for the Presidency in 2017.
Let’s review the players and work out what role this “New UMP” will play, and what the Socialists will do in response.
With a mix of official, non-official and non-candidates for the position President of the UMP – effectively the leader of the opposition – on the board, the following individuals are the ones to watch:
Jean-François Copé – the current General Secretary of the UMP is not just standing for his own re-election, he is standing to run for President in 2017. Whilst decrying talk that his run is preparation for the Presidency, no one doubts his ambition. For all his politicking (he is notoriously slick and slippery on the issues) he is not loved within the party, except perhaps amongst a large cohort of UMP Parliamentarians (he was leader of the majority group in Parliament from 2007 to 2010 where he worked hard to cultivate his differences with President Sarkozy, to the delight of his colleagues who enjoyed throwing their Parliamentary weight around). Closely associated with the right of the party, his landmark policy was banning the wearing of the burka in public.
François Fillon – former Prime Minister under President Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012, the somewhat accident prone Fillon led a major pension reform under Jacques Chirac however has suffered from his image as a rather stuffy provincial squire. He has recently been transplanted to a safe Paris seat in Parliament and has hinted that he wants to run for Mayor of Paris in 2014. It is not entirely clear if this, and his early declaration as candidate for the UMP, is a means to run for President in 2017, or simply a desire to prevent the party from being dragged to the right by Copé et al. He has been vocal in his opposition to hard-right rhetoric, but criticised by his own who feel his campaign started too early and is proving too devisive.
Bruno Le Maire – a former Agriculture Minister, Le Maire is a surprisingly engaging figure, despite appearing technocratic. Slightly awkward when talking about bread-and-butter issues, his instinct is centralist Social Gaullism (a bizarrely French flavour of politics perhaps closest to the Democrats in the US or the right wing tradition within the Lib Dems in the UK). He too is dismayed at Copé’s lurch to the right, but lacks followers within the party and it is something of a surprise that he has officialised his candidacy. He is however a favourite of the media and is lauded for being serious, intelligent and constructive. This is obviously a step for him to build his profile, given that other figures in his own league are on the wane (Xavier Bertrand notably – see below).
Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet – a former Environment Minister, and a surprise promotion mid-term under President Sarkozy, NKM, as she is known, is a strident centrist (which, in her case at least, is not a contradiction in terms). Generally liberal on social issues but playing to the crowd in her ambiguous opposition to equal marriage, she has however launched a confusing campaign for the Presidency of the UMP, talking about the loss of sovereignty of the country and the need for energy independence. Her rather mixed messages (sovereignty on the one hand, cooperation across Europe on the other) might be cruelly seen as trying to please all of the people all of the time, or perhaps the product of a politician who lacks an over-arching ideology (apart from a visceral contempt for the National Front which drives her opposition to Copé). She won’t win, but as the leading female figure in the UMP of her generation, she is certainly set for greater things.
Xavier Bertrand – Bertrand’s fall from grace is perhaps the most unexpected of the last year. A leading figure in government for the past 7 years, he was a devoted follower of Jacques Chirac and he found himself running the UMP on behalf of President Sarkozy to balance the old Chirac guard with the new regime. After two not-particularly-distinguished years at the head of the UMP, where elections were systematically but predictably lost, he found himself back in government until the 2012 elections. He has been a fierce critic of the President Hollande’s first months in power, perhaps the most effective, but a break seems to have come between him and the rank and file members of his own party. He suffered a crushing defeat when he stood for the leadership of the UMP parliamentary group, and has not yet confirmed that he will stand for the Presidency of the UMP. Largely seen as too associated with the past (in fairness, he is no more so that any of the other candidates) without a convincing picture for the future, Bertrand would be wise to withdraw from the frontline to better plan his counter-attack.
Nadine Morrano – a figure which provokes as much love in the far right of the party as contempt on the left of the party and pure hate amongst the far left, Morrano lost her seat in Parliament after a nasty campaign. She has openly blamed François Fillon for stoking party members against her and managed to alienate Catholics (by criticising the 15 August prayer calling for opposition against equal marriage) and then social liberals (by finally supporting it). She snipes on the sidelines on behalf of Copé and no doubt hopes to be richly rewarded in time.
Rachida Dati – another figure who has rallied to Copé because of her hatred of Fillon, who pinched her safe parliamentary constituency and hopes to pip her to the Mayoralty of Paris itself, Dati is an important figure in providing a little diversity to Copé’s otherwise white bully-boy persona. She lacks credibility and affection in the party though, due to her falling-out with President Sarkozy in 2009 over allegations that she conducted a smear campaign over the President’s relationship with his then wife.
Laurent Wauquiez – another government stalwart throughout the Fillon government, he has rallied to his old boss and set up a Social Right movement to voice his more centrist views. He has failed to shine in media outings in the past few months though, finding it hard to criticise the cautious centrism of Hollande, which largely matches his own.
Where this takes us:
Current polling would suggest Fillon has a comfortable lead over Copé, with the other suspected candidates trailing. However, this polling looks at UMP likely voters, and not the members who actually have a vote. Copé has been energetically working local constituency groups (the chances are, if you carry a UMP card, you’ve seen him since the May elections…) and hopes that this old fashioned campaigning will count more amongst the UMP stalwarts (older, whiter, more rural and more conservative than those who more naturally drift towards Fillon).
If Fillon wins, he will need to show that Paris is not a distraction from his 2017 ambitions (and a defeat in Paris would be fatal for any attempt at the Presidency). But he will be an eminently qualified and rational voice for the top job, painting Hollande as out of his depth. Copé on the other hand will lead to a more distinctive and popularist UMP, dredging the National Front for votes, as did Sarkozy in 2006 and 2007, and likely pushing centrist voters closer to Hollande.
That is why the Socialist Party cadres will be hoping for the clear blue water that the Copé win would create.