French right close to meltdown after election stalemate and accusations of fraud

Never known for its fraternité, France’s centre-right is at war again, and this time it could be fatal

Seldom in any democratic country can such fraternal hatred, such bloody-minded determination to eviscerate nominal colleagues, have been exposed within one political party.

Forget John Major’s war with the Tory Eurosceptic “bastards” in the 1990s. Forget Republican primary attack 'ads' in the United States. For eight days, leading members of the French centre-right have been ripping one another apart live on radio and TV or exchanging insults and accusations by Twitter.

François Fillon, the gently-spoken man who was prime minister until six months ago, has accused his leadership rival Jean-Francois Copé of turning France’s largest political party into a “mafia”. Mr Copé has accused Mr Fillon and his supporters of “ massive, pre-meditated fraud” in an internal election for party president which ended in a near dead-heat last weekend.

A despairing attempt was under way last night to prevent the implosion of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), the party founded by Jacques Chirac 10 years ago (supposedly) to end 30 years of civil warfare on the French centre-right. The man called in to mediate, Alain Juppé, a former prime minister and founding president of the party, said beforehand that he had “only a very small chance” of keeping the “small, flickering flame” of the UMP alive.

Like previous centre-right leadership wars – Chirac v Valéry, Giscard d’Estaing in the 1980s; Chirac v Edouard Balladur in the 1990s; Nicolas Sarkozy v Dominique de Villepin between 2002 and 2005 -  the dispute is partly about ambition and personal loathing. But it is also a struggle for the soul of a French centre-right which has been left wandering in the moral wilderness by the defeat of Sarkozyism and the resurgence of a cosmetically cleaned-up but still xenophobic National Front.

A break-up of the UMP would trigger tectonic shifts, or linked explosions, in French party politics, which could lead to the emergence of a “new” centrist movement but also to a strengthened “ far” or “hard” Right.

The day after last Sunday’s election, Mr Copé, 48, the party secretary-general, was declared the winner by 98 out of 170,000 votes. Mr Fillon, 58, grudgingly “acknowledged” the outcome but said that that the party had been “fractured morally and politically” by Mr Cope’s dubious “methods” on polling day and by his aggressive, hard right campaign.

In his appeals to the part faithful over the last four months, Mr Copé had “out-Sarkoed” Sarko by using scarcely coded appeals to anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic, white middle-class resentments. Mr Fillon had campaigned for frankly right-wing economic policies (such as the abolition for the 35 hour working week) but a more traditional, tolerant and “humanist” approach on racial and social questions.

On Wednesday, a bombshell arrived from the far side of the world. It emerged that 1,300 votes from French islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans (which are constitutionally part of France) had been “forgotten” in the final count on Monday. Once they were included, Mr Fillon won by 26 votes. Mr Cope refused to step down. He accused Mr Fillon of being a “bad loser”.

Mr Fillon announced live on television on Wednesday night that he no longer wanted the UMP presidency. He simply wanted Mr Copé’s victory cancelled for the sake of “honesty” and “morality” and the credibility of his political “family”.

Mr Fillon supporters walked out of a party appeals committee meeting yesterday morning because they said it was under Copé control. Mr Juppé, the mediator, had asked the committee to suspend its work. Mr Copé insisted on going ahead. Last night leading Copé supporters called into question the neutrality of the mediator, Mr Juppé.   

The Copé v Fillon split sprawls across the old fault line of the French centre right. Jacques Chirac created the UMP in 2002 by merging his neo-Gaullist party with the rump of Giscard’s liberal-pro-European-rightist UDF federation. Both Copé and Fillon come from Chirac’s party. Their lieutenants come from both traditions.

This confusion is partly the result of personal ambitions and hatreds. Another ex-Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin comes from the “soft” or moderate wing of the UMP but supports Copé because he detests Fillon.

But the muddle is also the result of seven years of Sarkozyism. By zig-zagging between economic realism, pro-Europeanism and crude appeals to “national identity”, Mr Sarkozy pulled down all the old political sign-posts in the French centre-right. The old opposition between Gaullism (populist, nationalist and statist) and Giscardsim (pro-European and liberal, socially and economically) has disappeared or become blurred.

The new division, represented by Fillon and Copé, is a split between moderate, thoughtful paternalism and feed-the-beast populism. Copé, like Sarkozy before him, believes that the rise of Marine Le Pen’s National Front can only be checked by red-meat appeals to national identity and fear of immigration and Islam.

Copé rejects outright alliances with the NF. Many of his supporters do not.

Francois Fillon, though right wing on economic issues, believes the Sarkozy-Copé approach is electorally, as well as morally, disastrous.

Alain Juppé, the ex-Prime Minister, now mayor of Bordeaux, was due to meet both Fillon and Cope tonight at a secret location. If no deal emerges, Mr Fillon could decide to pull up to 130 (out of 200) centre-right deputies out of the UMP group in the national assembly this week.

It is too late for him to create a new group and keep the €40,000 in party funding from the state, which goes with each seat in the assembly. But he has until next weekend to throw in his lot with a small, new centrist movement - taking the state funding with him and pushing the deeply-indebted UMP towards bankruptcy.

The fractious history of the French Right

1976-1981: Valéry Gicard d’Estaing v Jacques Chirac

Chirac, fired as Prime Minister by President Giscard in 1976, ran for President in 1981, splitting the centre-right vote. As a result, Giscard was denied a second term by the victory of the Socialist, François Mitterrand.

1993-1995 Jacques Chirac v Edouard Balladur

Chirac’s long-time lieutenant, Edouard Balladur, became unexpectedly popular as prime minister from 1993. He ran for the Presidency against his old boss in 1995, producing a fratricidal campaign of dirty tricks in the first round. Chirac won and went on to defeat the Socialist Lionel Jospin in the second round.

2004-2007 Nicolas Sarkozy v Dominique de Villepin

Sarkozy betrayed his mentor, Chirac, to help run Balladur’s campaign in 1995. He was never forgiven by Chirac or his right hand man, Dominique de Villepin (who called Sarkozy “the dwarf”). De Villepin was tried – but twice acquitted – of trying to smear Sarkozy as corrupt in 2004 to block his rise to power.