The two big beasts of the conservative right are battling for the leadership of the UMP, the centre-right party of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy and the unofficial leader of the opposition. The party will select its new leader in less than two weeks, and won’t pick its future Presidential candidate for another three years, but already the race is set to define the UMP’s strategy to opposing President Hollande’s administration.
And so far, it has not been an edifying sight.
We have reviewed the possible candidates earlier here, however all but two of them were excluded from running for the leadership due to the requirement to present 8,000 signatures from party members. Remaining in a head-to-head battle are Jean-François Copé (the current party leader) and François Fillon (Sarkozy’s former Prime Minister for five years). Despite avowedly standing behind the same party platform, the two could not be more different in terms of style, temperament or political strategy, and this race, perhaps in contrast to a contest that could have seen others joining the field, could set the party’s trajectory for the years to come. The media enjoyed the respectful but pugilistic debate held on national television on October 25th, touting the two differing styles. Viewing figures were however disappointing, at 2.3 million viewers. We can assume however that those 264,000 or so party members elligble to vote were watching though, and those differences that were teased out over the course of the evening really do matter. In particular, three key areas highlight the choice facing the members of the party who will vote, not just for a man, but for a political trajectory.
Dealing with the Past
Both right and left have trouble moving on from the Sarkozy years, but the UMP has displayed an intriguing inability to shake the former President from its thinking. Both Fillon and Copé are guilty of this in part, but for Jean-François Copé, his Sarko-dependency is perhaps terminal.
As Prime Minister and loyal right-hand-man for five years, it is perhaps surprising that François Fillon was so ready to throw Nicolas Sarkozy under the bus. But he has done just that, refusing to anwer questions as to what he would do in 2016 if Sarkozy reappeared and wanted his old job back. Copé has toadily agreed to step aside if the boss comes knocking, and has received Sarkozy’s tacit endorsement as his reward. In a similar vein, Fillon has been readier to admit that all things done over the previous five years were not perfect, Copé has been much less flexible – an irony not lost on perplexed journalists who see Copé associating himself with government positions that he at the time contested from outside the government.
Key Messages for Attack
François Fillon has honed a moderated style, with lots of grave words, heavy intonation and a general air of seriousness. Jean-François Copé on the other hand is an old-fashioned populist, if not to say a polemicist. His vocal tick is to apologise for what he is about to say and then make a claim, thus giving his listener the impression that everything he is saying is breaking a taboo. Fillon is more details oriented and tends to project a more balanced view. So much so that he has been forced to anchor himself more clearly to the right in this campaign.
Whereas Copé works crowds hard on social issues, like a US Republican, Fillon’s strengths are his credibility and his denonciation of the Hollande Administration’s ineptitude. This has reinforced Fillon’s reputation as a political truth-teller (he famously said in 2007, shortly after taking power, and importantly, pre-crisis that France was “broke”). Copé on the other hand has repeatedly played fast and loose with the truth in setting out his arguments. Thanks to the French tradition of long (sometimes very long) political debate programmes on TV and radio, there is usually time for alert journalists to pick him up in awkward moments whereupon he backpeddles and changes course. If not, fact checkers usually are busy after the programme ends.
On tactics, again the staid and traditional Fillon contrasts with the ebullient Copé. This weekend during a long radio debate programme, Copé announced with some aplomb that he would consider calling for mass street demonstrations if the government continued with what he viewed was a dangerous series of policies. The journalists who were questioning Copé were seemingly stunned that the conservative right would consider using the street to provoke social disorder (although, as Copé pointed out, other figures of the right such as Chirac, had used public demonstrations to halt Socialist policies in the past with much success). Fillon quickly put some distance between himself and Copé, the firebrand.
Emphasis on Policy: Economy vs Social Issues
François Fillon has a respected (if contested) track record in complex economic affairs – he piloted arguably the only memorable reform during Chirac’s second term, in significantly modernising the public pensions system – and was acutely aware of the financial position of France’s economy in 2007. Sadly, he was so politically weak throughout his tenure as PM he was unable to do anything about it. Skating inelegantly over the latter issue, Fillon now projects his statesmanlike persona as a response to economic uncertainty. Comfortable describing and analysing the problems, his dissection of government policy is well-thought out, interesting and sometimes even devastating. It fails to be a knock out blow because he has no policies, but that’s not necessarily an issue for an opposition party four years out from the election.
Jean-François Copé on the other hand tends to ignore the economy wholesale, instead preferring to couch the debate in terms of taxes. Bringing the pocketbook back to the debate is seen sometimes by the chattering classes in France as unseemly. Copé rails against the “fiscal bludgeoning” of the middle classes and then segways neatly onto social issues and does his usual number of quasi-islamophobia and outright homophobia. No speech is ever complete without references to his mayoralty of the dreary satellite town of Meaux, the implication being that he understands the middle (and by implication the working) class better than the snooty mayor of the most expensive real estate in France, Fillon and the 7th district of Paris. On the issue of equal marriage, the right, as I commented here, has continued to adopt a more extreme position as the debate becomes fiercer – François Fillon has even suggested that gay people who get married could have their marriages dissolved if the right returned to power in 2017 – a position that is both inhuman and unconstitutional.
So Different and Yet So Similar
With all of those differences, it is easy to overlook their greatest similarity, and it is an obstacle to future electoral success for both: neither men however have managed to understand the real reasons why François Hollande won the Presidency and the Socialists a thumping parliamentary majority. Nor can they explain why the UMP has lost every election since 2007. The economic crisis and the fervent anti-Sarkozy feeling are still the only explanation that they can muster – change both of these, they seem to suggest, and the right will walk back into power, its rightful place. Whilst this collective blindness remains, the UMP can only ever be a party of opposition and not the government in waiting.
What the decision of UMP members on later this month will mean however is the choice between a party of the reactionary and populist right in the form of Jean-François Copé or a more moderate force, centred on an economic critique of the Socialist government in the form of François Fillon. The former risks dragging the party to a Tea Party style extreme that will be flattened by a centrist Hollande; the latter risks economic recovery obliterating its raison d’être. Polls still show Fillon outpacing Copé, but the gap has closed. No one knows who will turn up to their party offices to vote this month. Whoever they are, they have the opposition’s future in their hands.