November 24th, 2012
in Op Ed
Written by Hilary Barnes
Political parties in France tend to form around persons, with ideas, policies and principles taking second place, and tend to fade away after a decade or two as a new generation of leaders emerges. It is a consequence, say the political scientists, of the fact that in the Fifth Republic the president is elected directly by the people.
This has led to the presidentialisation of the politics of the parties as they seek a leader with the best chances of gaining the crown in what is sometimes described as a "monarchic republic", where the president has far greater powers than most prime ministers in parliamentary democracies and the legislature's powers are relatively limited.
The consequences of this are currently on display in a contested election to become president of the UMP (Union for a Movement Popular), the organisation formed in 2002 to support the second term presidential election of Jacques Chirac and subsequently became the vehicle that propelled Nicholas Sarkozy into the presidency for a single five-year term in 2007.
The November 18 UMP election which pitted Francois Fillon, the nation's prime minister for the five years of Sarkozy's rule, against the UMP's secretary-general Jean-Francois Copé, and in which all registered members of the party were eligible to vote, turned into a shambles. Copé proclaimed himself the new president of the party even before the final count was announced. When it was announced, 25 hours after the poll had closed, he was indeed awarded the victory, but with a majority of only 98 votes on a turnout of about 180,000. Fillon reluctantly conceded defeat, but two days later he and his allies discovered that a count of the votes in three overseas party federations - a total of just over 1,000 votes - had been "forgotten". When counted, these would apparently leave Fillon with a majority of 26. Amid mounting tensions and general consternation among the public at large and the UMP party faithful in particular, Copé refused to consider a recount.
Fillon refused to allow the situation to be clarified by the unit set up by the party to supervise and control the election result on the grounds that he had no confidence in its objectivity. Fillion left little doubt about what he thought about the party was functioning under Copé.
"Political parties are not a mafia where things can be suppressed and the truth denied."
Finally, party veteran Alan Juppé, prime minister in the 1990s under President Chirac and foreign minister for two years under Sarkozy, was accepted by the two sides to "mediate", to endeavour to find out who is the rightful winner and above all try to keep the party from disintegrating.
Popular opinion probably accords well with the views of a veteran political journalist and TV commentator, Olivier Mazerolle, who on November 22 in his daily prime time discussion programme at news channel BFMTV burst into a bitter rant deploring the state of politics in France and concluding :
"Like everyone else I am dead tired of this nightmare that obliges me to comment on these incompetents."
It is early days to conclude that the UMP is finished as a serious force in French politics, but there are many who have already drawn this conclusion. There are two potential beneficiaries. The first is the far right immigrant-critical National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, who won 17 % of the vote in the first round of this year's presidential election.
The second is Jean-Louis Borloo, 61, and his UDI (Union of Democrats and Independents), founded only a couple of months ago, which seeks to beat the incumbent socialists with a pronounced centrist profile, thus distancing itself very clearly from Le Pen and hoping to win over floating voters of the centre-left. Jean-Louis Borloo held several ministerial posts under President Chirac and was minister for ecology, energy and development from 2007 to 2010 under Sarkozy.
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About the Author
Hilary Barnes is a veteran economics and business writer. He was for 25 years the Copenhagen Correspondent of the Financial Times, Nordic Correspondent of The Economist for part of that time, and published a paper newsletter, sold to international companies in the Nordic countries, called The Scandinavian Economies for over 30 years.