Right after the last French elections, I had a chat with a Parisian friend of mine. He predicted that Marine Le Pen's far right, ultra-nationalistic Front National was going to become the second party (after the Socialists) in the next few years.
At the time, his observation surprised me. But it also struck me as plausible. After all, Marine Le Pen had just obtained a credible percentage of the vote during the first round of Presidential elections. More importantly, I knew that the upcoming winds of austerity and the accompanying economic hardship would constitute a fertile ground for right wing forces.
You could go back to Weimar Republic and see the rise of that Austrian painter with a penchant for tooth brush mustaches. Austerity, check, high unemployment, check, middle classes losing ground, check and of course a well-packaged "other" to be blamed for everything, check.
(Actually, you don't even have to go back that far. You can simply study what happened after Structural Adjustment Policies were imposed in a country, in recent decades. In almost all cases, you will see either a coup d'etat or an authoritarian conservative government coming to power. But the imagery of the Austrian painter is more evocative.)
However, last week's events surrounding the leadership debate for UMP seem to suggest that the French case might not be as straightforward.
Leadership Struggle for UMP
UMP (Union Pour un Movement Populaire) is a centre-right conglomerate of parties. It was formed in 2002 out of the ashes of the several conservative, centrist and Gaullist parties and like most such parties its main raison d'être was to support a leader. First Chirac, then Sarkozy.
Since Sarkozy lost these last presidential elections, UMP has been in search of a leader to become relevant. The two main candidates were François Fillon and Jean François Copé.
presciently declared that France was economically bankrupt) and social liberal. He has the charisma of an Excel spreadsheet but he is competent. And he is liked by most people regardless of their political affiliations.
Copé is a charismatic extreme right wing politician. He has an anti-immigration platform and during he leadership campaign he emphasized the existence of anti-white racism in France. That earned him some rebuke but a lot of support. He won by getting 98 more votes (out of 175,000) than his opponent. He immediately declared victory and has been refusing any recount ever since.
For his part, Fillon first claimed that there were irregularities in several polling stations. Then he declared that some of the votes from DOM TOM were discarded and with their inclusion he should have won. And lately, he has been insisting that the leadership elections should be held again.
All of which might be true but they also show that he is more like helpless Gore in Florida against the pit bulls of W. We know who won that tussle. And how people sided with the winner.
Copé the Polarizer
By all accounts, Copé is Sarkozy's man. Even their profiles are a close match.
Sarkozy, he has Jewish ancestry: his father, Roland Copé was of Romanian Jewish origin and his mother, Monique Ghanassia was of Algerian Jewish origin. Like Sarkozy his political career started as a young mayor of a wealthy Parisian suburb (Meaux). And like Sarkozy, he has well articulated anti-immigration and anti-Muslim positions.
If he succeeds in his leadership bid, Copé will likely re-position UMP as a substitute for Front National. Just like Marine Le Pen moved the party a bit closer to the center, Copé will move the UMP to the right to occupy by and large the same political space as FN. He will also further Le Pen's work in bolstering the "us and "them" politics. There is already a handy image of an "other" that can be blamed for the ills of the country. Which is always a good starting point. Remember "Dolchtosslegende"?
Sadly, even his identity in this context is well suited for the role of polarizer. One of the open secrets in France is that antisemitism is alive and well. Once the exclusive domain of white and Catholic French people, it is now flourishing among its five million-strong Muslim minority. This is in part thanks to the radicalizing efforts of fundamentalist imams who dramatically increased their influence in the aftermath of 9/11. They also used the crusades Zeitgeist of that period and the dislike and rejection these people were experiencing in their daily life to bring them to the fold. As many groups did before them for several millenia, they blame the Jews for their misery and unhappiness. In that context, Copé, the self-described, Juif non-pratiquant, would be the perfect lightning rod.
But the elements that make him a good fit for the job of polarizer makes him a poor choice for president. My guess is that if he manages to push Fillon aside, he will continue with the project of transforming the UMP into a more respectable FN. And just before the presidential elections of 2017 he will step aside and let Sarkozy move for a comeback.
Fillon the Centrist
As for Fillon, he has two options. One, he perseveres and somehow convinces UMP elders that new elections should be held. And he wins these elections.
In that case, I suspect UMP will preserve its centrist position, as Fillon will occupy the same political space as Bayrou and Borloo (whose Radical Party has been attracting many former UMP politicians and party members).
I doubt that this will come to pass. But if it happens, my friend's prediction about FN becoming the second largest party might become true.
Second possibility: Copé maintains his leadership and Fillon leaves to create his own party. This is a tried and true formula for many conservative French politicians. He has the name recognition and he might have a limited success. But I doubt that this new structure could become a presidential vehicle for him.
It is not that Copé or Sarkozy are better politicians. Fillon is more competent, has gravitas and his views are more positive and unifying. His problem is that he is a centripetal politician at a moment in time when his country is under the influence of centrifugal forces.
He might have made an excellent president in the 90s. Nowadays, he is more likely to become a footnote.