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.