Argument

UMP Shaker

France's conservative party is falling apart. Can Nicolas Sarkozy return to rescue it?

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.

Things really got interesting on the night of the election, when the results were a virtual tie and both candidates declared victory. On November 19, Copé was declared the official winner, by just 98 votes out of 176,608 ballots. (That is 50.28 percent to 49.72 percent.) Then, the next day, the party's electoral commission met to certify the results and realized that ballots from three overseas voting areas had never been sent in. The commission initially confirmed that those votes were enough to give Fillon an even more miniscule victory. On Nov. 21, the former prime minister declared that he was the real winner, by 26 votes.

But the UMP's Florida nightmare scenario was just getting started. The electoral commission accepted accusations of voter fraud against Fillon's supporters, and threw out results from the remote Pacific island territory of New Caledonia, as well as two areas in southeastern France, alleging cheating. This swung the election back to Copé by 962 votes.

By Nov. 20, Fillon and his supporters were widely highlighting the fact that Copé, as the acting UMP leader, chose the majority of the electoral commission members and that he had overseen preparations for the election -- or, to be clear, his own election. Fillon quickly asked a French court to seize all electoral data (a process that is unlikely to be prompt), and he called for an independent -- and legitimate -- UMP commission to examine the results on a party federation-by-federation basis. In the face of Copé's refusal, Fillon has formally created a UMP splinter group -- the Rally-UMP -- in parliament, with 68 members, including several high-profile former ministers.

While Copé has repeatedly refused any efforts that would formally undermine the official aspect of his conquest -- or for victory to be "stolen" from him -- he has pledged to reunify the party. Around himself, naturally. "My hands and my arms are open wide," he said the day after the vote, going as far as to offer Fillon the vice presidency of the party. The former prime minister's campaign director, Eric Ciotti, called the proposal "grotesque."

The war of words between the two sides has been getting increasingly catty. Speaking on Europe 1 radio station on November 21, Copé referred to Fillon as a "profoundly sore loser" who is leading an attempted "putsch." Fillon went one further that same night on the TF1 television channel, saying, "A political party is not a mafia." To which prominent Copé supporter and former justice minister, Rachida Dati, retorted the next afternoon: "The Mafiosi are those who break the rules."

The bitter tone may have peaked on November 26 when a prominent politician likened Copé to a Central African Republic president who declared himself emperor in a 1974 ceremony in which he dressed like Napoleon, before overseeing a regime that engaged in summary executions of its opponents. "We have, on one side, a man who acts a little like [Jean-Bedel] Bokassa did some years back," former UMP spokesman Dominique Paillé said on Radio France International. "That is to say, ‘I proclaim myself emperor, and therefore everything...is part of a show by my friends, to endorse my victory.'"

Amid promises of defamation suits and allegations of cheating, prominent conservatives are warning that rank-and-file UMP members will flee this mess, and they seem to be right. The recently created centrist coalition, known as the UDI -- led by former environment minister Jean-Louis Borloo -- received 4,500 party applications from UMP members last week alone, the party calculates. And while no credible numbers have yet been released, the typical winner whenever one of France's two mainstream political parties discredits itself is the far-right National Front.

The growing sense that Copé has manipulated the UMP system he's been overseeing since 2010 explains the collapse in his polling numbers, from 48 percent approval in late October, to just 26 percent in late November. Fillon's national support also declined by 11 percent during that same period, but 52 percent of the French still have a positive opinion of him.

The dispute has even dragged Sarkozy back into the fray. The former president, who has been doing his best to keep a low profile as he replenishes his coffers on the international lecture circuit and battles a serious ongoing investigation into the allegedly illegal financing of his 2007 presidential campaign, intervened to calm the roiled passions around his succession. Sarkozy suggested, through emissaries, that new elections be held because no candidate resulting from this shambles could credibly lead the party. A web petition for a re-vote created by the spokeswoman for Sarkozy's last presidential campaign, quickly garnered about 22,000 signatures, although it carries only symbolic weight.

While Sarkozy did manage to convince the two increasingly fierce political enemies to meet face to face on November 27, his efforts have already gotten bogged down over the question of whether party activists need to vote on whether to hold a new vote. (Copé insists that the party has no statutes to make that happen, meaning that for the foreseeable future, he must remain as the de facto leader of the party.)

Even under the best of circumstances, a new electoral process -- if it happens at all -- would take several months to organize. If they hold two separate votes and go through the process of changing the UMP's internal statutes (Fillon wants the votes to be run by an entirely independent authority), the right-of-center political movement could be fiddling with itself in search of a leader deep into next year.

Needless to say, in the era of social networking, the saga has set Twitter alight. More tweets mentioned Copé and Fillon -- some 350,000 -- in the two days after the party vote than mentioned Sarkozy and Hollande in the entire week before the presidential election six months ago, according to the French news agency, AFP. A message by the respected, iconoclastic co-founder of the political magazine Marianne, Nicolas Domenach, was retweeted more than 200 times. It reads: "Copé-Fillon: it will all depend on the Florida vote!" Another popular message, written by the anonymous comic tweeter @nain_portekoi (which translates as "whatEVER!") asked: "You know how to recognize a good UMP president? No? Neither does the UMP." Meanwhile, @cujus_regio snarked that "It is easier to negotiate a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel than between Copé and Fillon." Another message, by @petulamoore, suggested that the results were "Fillon 55% of the vote, Copé 56%." And yet another popular tweet assessed the situation thusly: "In fact, the Mayans were slightly mistaken, 2012 is just the end of the UMP."

The most salient comment, though, may have come from the Socialist-friendly handle @mitterrandfr (we can assume it's an alias and not the late former president himself): "Fillon and Copé have been more effective in destroying the UMP in three days than the Socialist party in 10 years."

And for that, Hollande, badly in need of a break these days, can't thank them enough.

FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Continental Drift

Is Australia breaking with the United States over the pivot to Asia?

The so-called pivot to Asia gets a lot of attention in Washington -- from the secretary of state, from the secretary of defense, and from the president himself. It has become the Obama administration's signature shift in grand strategy. No one knows quite what it will look like, but everyone agrees that one key aim is to hedge against a rising China -- a purpose carefully left unstated by American officials lest they upset economic relations with Beijing or provoke the very military response that they are trying to discourage.

But lost amid the care over what the pivot means for U.S.-China relations has been the question of what it means for U.S. allies and their relations with China. Those allies don't necessarily see China the same way as Washington does, but their cooperation will be key to implementing the pivot successfully.

Australia -- long one of America's closest allies -- is a case in point. The U.S.-Australia relationship is shaping up to be far more strategically important than it has ever been in economic, diplomatic, and military terms. American investors have poured some $130 billion into Australia -- the United States is the largest source of foreign direct investment in the country by far -- with major American companies such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips fueling the recent energy resource extraction boom in western and northern Australia.

Last month, Canberra released a 350-page white paper, "Australia in the Asian Century." A year in the making, the document dwells predominantly on the country's future relations with key Asian states such as China, India, Indonesia, and Japan, but it also makes clear Australia's commitment to its alliance with the United States:

We consider that a strong and consistent United States presence in the region will be as important in providing future confidence in Asia's rapidly changing strategic environment as it has been in the past. We will continue to support US engagement in the region and its rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific, including through deepening our defence engagement with the US and regional partners.

Australia's election to a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council will likewise strengthen the opportunities for strategic cooperation between Canberra and Washington.

In defense and security affairs, the two countries have also steadily strengthened an already robust relationship. Australia has remained committed in Afghanistan, currently fielding 1,550 troops there, the largest contingent of any non-NATO country; Australia has lost 39 soldiers in Afghanistan, half of those in the past two years alone. During his visit to Australia a year ago, President Obama announced plans to rotate U.S. Marines, for training purposes, through an Australian base in Darwin, with the aim of rotating up to 2,500 Marines a year by 2017; the first detachment of 200 Marines arrived in April and wrapped up their training six months later. These rotations will constitute the largest ongoing U.S. military presence on Australian territory in decades.

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visited Perth in November for the annual U.S.-Australian ministerial, the two sides agreed to continue augmenting the U.S. military presence in Australia, particularly for joint training, and discussed the possibility of increased American access to Australian naval facilities, such as HMAS Stirling on the Indian Ocean. Another important outcome was the agreement to locate highly advanced U.S. space surveillance capabilities in the form of radars and telescopes in Australia in order to better track space assets and debris. Looking ahead, enhanced defense science and technology cooperation is also in the works.

Seen from these angles, the U.S.-Australia relationship is stronger than ever and should grow even more so as each country looks to devote more resources to successfully engaging the increasingly dynamic Asian region.

But here is where the tensions and contradictions arise. To begin with, Australian defense spending will be at its lowest level as a proportion of the national economy since 1938, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The government budget released in May provides 24.2 billion Australian dollars (about 25.3 billion U.S. dollars) for defense in the 2012-13 fiscal year, equivalent to about 1.6 percent of Australian GDP. Most of the defense spending cuts -- amounting to AU $5.5 billion over four years -- will come from reduced capital investments in equipment and facilities. This more austere budgetary environment will constrain Australia's contributions to the pivot.

Moreover, a range of Australian commentators -- a former prime minister and other top officials, leading entrepreneurs, and prominent policy experts -- have expressed strong concerns about a deepening alliance with Washington. Broadly, their point is that Australia's national interests should better reflect the region's interests. Other commentators put a finer point on it, arguing that Australia risks being dragged into a U.S. confrontation with China -- a China that is by far Australia's most important export destination and number one trading partner overall. (For the 2011-2012 fiscal year, China accounted for 29 percent of Australian merchandise exports and Australia-China bilateral trade represented 24 percent of all Australian merchandise trade.)

For example, on the eve of Clinton and Panetta's visit, former Prime Minister Paul Keating cautioned against insulating Australia from the Asian region by "hanging on in barely requited faith to attenuated linkages with the relatively declining West" or by accepting "an easy accommodation with the foreign policy objectives of the United States."

Australia's first ambassador to the PRC, Stephen FitzGerald, recently warned that Australia has "absolutely no national interest in being a party to this [U.S.-China] contest." Others, such as strategist Hugh White, argue that rather than be part of a doomed and dangerous strategy to contain China, Canberra should encourage Washington to seek a concert of powers relationship with Beijing. Even Australian businesspersons have entered the fray: billionaires James Packer and Kerry Stokes, both with substantial interests in China, claimed in September that Australian politicians had not shown enough respect to China. According to Packer, Australians "have to try harder to let China know how grateful we are for their business" and that "China has been a better friend to us than we have been to China."

Chinese officials and commentators have certainly taken notice of U.S.-Australia alliance relations and issued some warnings of their own. Liu Weimin, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, in response to the announcement of the Marine rotation in Darwin, stated, "It may not be quite appropriate to intensify and expand military alliances and may not be in the interest of countries within this region." The Global Times, a Chinese state-run news outlet, issued a stronger rebuke, stating that the plans aim to "harm China" and that Australia was at risk of getting "caught in the cross-fire."

There remains broad public support in Australia for the Australia-U.S. alliance and for good relations more generally, but there are strong and vocal skeptics, who will argue for a more restrained approach to the alliance in the name of national interests, a more independent foreign and security policy, and, given Australia's geographic location, the need to take neighbors' interests into fuller account -- not only those of China, but also those of Indonesia, India, and others.

In the end, while U.S. and Australian policymakers will work together to make the most of the American pivot to Asia, Canberra will likely proceed deliberately and pragmatically, keeping an eye on how the cooperation plays out in the region. Defense cooperation will grow in relatively low-key ways, through efficiencies, synergies, and consolidations that can strengthen U.S. and Australian forces. More effort will be made to expand U.S. multilateral engagement in the region -- through U.S.-Australia-Japan consultations and exercises, trilateral cooperation activities with India, the upcoming humanitarian and disaster relief exercise hosted by Indonesia, and the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation. At some point, there may even be trilateral U.S.-Australia-China military-to-military cooperation.

Of course, all alliance relationships face contradictions, and Australia is also not the only American ally trying to find the right balance in its relations with Washington and Beijing. For Washington, understanding and deftly responding to these contradictions will be a critically important part of cooperating with allies to successfully execute the pivot.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images