An uneasy peace has broken out in the month-old conflict which threatened to tear apart the main French opposition party.
Jean-Francois Copé, the apparent winner of an allegedly fraudulent leadership election in November has agreed to a new poll next September to decide who should succeed Nicolas Sarkozy as the long-term President of the centre-right Union Pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP).
In return, his rival, the former Prime Minister François Fillon, has agreed to dissolve his breakaway parliamentary group – the Rassemblement UMP or RUMP – and abandon a legal action against his own party.
Both sides claimed victory yesterday but the terms accepted by Mr Cope amount to an admission that his apparent victory by a handful of vote last month was, at the least, dubious. The new election will be organised by a neutral “high authority”. If he wishes to run again, Mr Cope, 48, will have to stand down as UMP president.
Party resources will be equally available to all candidates. In the meantime, two of Mr Fillon’s closest allies will be given senior posts in the UMP hierarchy.
The deal, brokered by the former prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, has avoided, for now, a schism within France’s largest political party. It leaves, however, a legacy of fraternal hatred, based partly on ideology and partly on personal ambition, which could explode once again next year.
Mr Fillon, 58, had accused Mr Copé’s team of organising “fraud on an industrial scale” to snatch the party leadership and de facto pole position for the centre-right “nomination” for the 2017 presidential election. Tens of thousands of proxy ballots were cast for Mr Cope, who organised the election as party secretary-general. Votes from overseas were “forgotten”.
Mr Copé, a one-time moderate who ran a populist, hard right campaign, accused Mr Fillon of being a “bad loser” and anti-democratic.
Other candidates could now enter the race next summer, including, conceivably, former President Nicolas Sarkozy. Mr Fillon may stand aside and concentrate his energies and his long-term Presidential hopes on the mayoral election in Paris in 2014.
National support for both men has been reduced by the internal, party name-calling in the last month but Mr Copé’s ratings have fallen more steeply than those of Mr Fillon. By taking his party to the brink of destruction, the former prime minister lost his reputation as a calm and consensual politician. He also demonstrated fighting qualities that even his supporters had not previously detected.