Newt Gingrich ran for the Republican Party nomination this election cycle, and, despite being tipped for a brief period, eventually ran out of money and ended his campaign. Before doing so, however, he had become one of the most effective and powerful voices of criticism against Mitt Romney, the eventual unsuccessful candidate. Gingrich went on to support Romney (of course) but his advocacy for the Republican ticket was forever tainted by the memories of his previous attacks.
The vote for leader of the French conservative opposition UMP party is due this Sunday, and the two candidates are busy ripping chunks out of each other in a much more personal competition that anyone had anticipated. The front-runner, François Fillon, is trying hard to stay above the mud slinging (his surrogates are trying less hard…), but underdog Jean-François Copé is adopting the Gingrich Maneuver: attack hard and personal. But the same fate that belied Mr Gingrich could very well reward Mr Copé for his efforts. Will Copé really damage the UMP in the way Gingrich bruised the GOP, and will the electoral fate be the same?
The Nasty Campaign
So far this leadership campaign has been a queasy journey through the realms of personal insults and bids to project the hardest most intolerant view of conservatism possible. It has even taken an unexpected turn into calls for social disorder. In contrast to the latest Socialist party leadership elections, the process has been chaotic, personally damaging, at times embarrassing, and even somewhat undemocratic. In contrast to the Socialist primaries in 2011 (although, admittedly, this election is not a primary, as Copé continues to remind his electorate), media coverage has largely dwelt on the personal sniping by the candidates against each other, rather than the policy differences that might exist. Ironically, this is largely down to the candidates themselves, who have repeatedly said that there are no policy differences, instead the difference lies in method, style and strategy. Add to that intrigue by the surrogates about control over party lists, suspicions about the democratic quality of voting in certain parts of the country, and you have a political quagmire of a leadership election.
Valerie Pecresse, a leading surrogate for Fillon, was emphatic yesterday morning about her candidate’s driving message: bringing the party together. How he would do this having verbally drubbed Copé personally was a question that Pecresse avoided answering. Copé too has replied through interviews with the press that he wants to unite the party, but that the path on which Fillon would take the party is a path to flabby centrist thinking.
Now with both candidates sniping openly at each other in the final days, the party as a whole is limping towards the final vote. Fillon still outpolls Copé (despite the underdog warning all that he will surprise everyone next Sunday), and therefore the most likely outcome for now is that Fillon will beat Copé, but by a smaller margin that he had hoped or anticipated at the very beginning of this campaign.
State of the Party
What state will the party be in when he does? The UMP has, as a whole, taken a lurch to the right, particularly on social issues. Here, the positions of both Copé and Fillon have merged – both are extremely hostile to the extension of marriage to gay couples and to foreigners voting in local elections (against which the party has even organised a petition). The centre of the party looks uneasy. Figures such as former Prime Minister and now Senator Jean-Pierre Raffarin, with his “humanist” movement, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, scornful of the testosterone overwhelming the public debate, who refuses to choose between the candidates publicly, and will launch her own movement within the party tomorrow, are concerned that the party’s shift to the right and fractious quarreling will leave it scarred for years to come.
Perhaps more than that will be the harm done to Fillon by Copé and his supporters. If Fillon wins on Sunday, it is more than likely that he will run for Mayor of Paris in 2014 (he is already an MP for Paris since the legislative elections in June). If he wins, and he stands a good chance against the little known Socialist candidate, Anne Hidalgo, he will surely use the Mayoralty as a springboard to win the UMP nomination for President. Jacques Chirac used the Hotel de Ville of Paris in the same way in 1995. Fillon professes not to be looking past Sunday, but his game plan is clear. He has broad appeal across the centre right, and would be a danger to the nascent Union of Democrats and Independents, recently formed by former Sarkozy Minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, but will he be so successful in reuniting his right wing base given that Copé has trained his fire on Fillon’s weakness on the far right?
Fillon may be damaged beyond repair. But the right of the UMP need not fear, for there is another. The man that really casts a shadow across both of the candidates, and would probably win any leadership contest, is Nicolas Sarkozy. The fact that the UMP still hasn’t worked out why it lost every election for five years is startling. The fact that it is about to elect a leader damaged by infighting is clear. Those preparing the campaign for 2017 would do well to look at the fate of Mitt Romney in 2012.