PARIS — Though it's only been six months since they were booted ignominiously from the Elysée Presidential Palace, it ought to be a pretty good time for French conservative leaders. According to a burgeoning right-wing narrative that began to take shape this summer, and is starting to gain currency among voters, the feckless President Francois Hollande is incapable of overcoming France's go-nowhere economy, its double-digit unemployment, or the European debt crisis. After all, if such forces swept away the dynamic incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, making him France's first one-term president since 1981, what chance does a schlemiel like Hollande have? It isn't just that he's a weak leader who still hasn't found his footing, they argue; the guy explicitly acknowledged, in Jimmy Carter-like fashion, last summer that his government won't shake France from its economic malaise anytime soon. No wonder Hollande has seen his popularity cascade downward, from 61 percent approval at the start of his presidency to 64 percent disapproval in late October.
The road ahead for the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) is clear. The key is to offer a strong, decisive alternative, and cross the minimum credibility threshold. Then the new conservative leader, ideally one who exudes fresh post-Sarkozy era legitimacy, will galvanize his disciplined political storm troopers heading into an array of municipal, regional, national, and European elections, beginning in March 2014. If executed properly, this would mean turning back the rising Socialist tide of recent years, and returning the presidency to the conservatives in 2017.
But there is a problem, and it is becoming a big one: There is no clear conservative leader. The party's dominant force for most of the previous decade, Nicolas Sarkozy, was forced into retreat in May when he lost his presidential re-election bid. When a national leader loses reelection it is, almost invariably, traumatic for their party. It can be the political equivalent of a beheading, separating the vision and guiding principals from the body, which writhes around for a time, unaware that it is dead. This process -- which only ends when one or another portion of the party rises to dominance -- often takes months or, in some particularly ugly cases, years.
It's beginning to look like this will be the fate of France's conservatives. Six months after losing power, the UMP held an election for the movement's leadership in mid-November. The leadership battle pitted the popular François Fillon, who was Sarkozy's prime minister for five years, against the ambitious Jean-François Copé, a former budget minister and government spokesman, who has been the acting head of the party since his predecessor became a government minister in 2010.
Of course, being nominal party leader isn't all that important when your party controls the presidential palace; the head of state is the de facto leader of the party. The assumption in the UMP was always that, on the off chance that Sarkozy lost -- and he clearly didn't believe that he would until he did -- the party would hold a leadership vote shortly after in which the relatively unpopular Copé wouldn't stand a chance. After all, Fillon is one of the few prime ministers in French history to remain popular at the end of his time in power and, in another rarity, he lasted in his position as long as the president. He comes across as serious, grounded, and full of gravitas. Copé, by contrast, can come across as a slick, self-satisfied panderer who will say or do anything to get elected. The decision was up to UMP party members.
Surveys in the run-up to the Nov. 18 vote long showed Fillon winning, generally by substantial margins, but in the final weeks of the campaign, some journalists began to question the reliability of such polls. Copé, having usurped Sarkozy's old campaign rulebook by calling for the UMP to stand proudly behind bed-rock right-wing principles (including talk of "anti-white racism") rather than go mushy to win centrist support, seemed to be gaining momentum within the party. Fillon, by contrast, began to carve out a more centrist identity, putting some clear space between himself and Sarkozy.