France's UMP Party Leans Right, Elects Jean-François Copé As New Leader

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The center-right opposition party in France has elected a new leader, but the race was so bitterly contested that the Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, is in for plenty of soul-searching in the months ahead.

Media coverage of the contest was positively frantic on Monday as it became clear that election results were too close to call. Both candidates claimed victory as ballot counters went into overtime.

The headlines told the story. “La guerre d'usure,” said one major paper.  “L'imbroglio,” said another. “Redoutez-vous une explosion de l’UMP ?”

If you can’t make heads or tails of these proclamations, you’re in good company – neither could the people of France. But finally, on Monday evening, it was announced that Jean-François Copé had won a slim majority.

According to the BBC, Copé had 50.03 percent of the vote; his adversary François Fillon won 49.97 percent.

This will have major implications for the UMP, which lost the presidential, parliamentary and local  elections to the Socialists in May and has been struggling to reinvent itself. It all came down to one fundamental choice: Should the party tilt centrist, or tack right?

Fillon, 58, was the more moderate candidate for UMP leadership. He is a quiet man, generally well-liked but not exactly charismatic. He was prime minister under former president Nicolas Sarkozy, and his strategy for the UMP is to attract left-leaning voters.

“Some people think they can win France by taking all the turns to the right," he said during a stump speech last week, according to The Telegraph. "But I am convinced that it will be won by the right, by the center, and even by the left."

Copé, 48, had other ideas. On fiscal policies, he and Fillon were in general agreement. But when it comes to social issues, Copé has no interest in centrism; he’ll try to steer the UMP toward the far-right voters who supported the ultra-nationalist National Front party in record numbers this May.

Copé made this clear when he published a controversial book, “Manifesto for an Uninhibited Right,” last month. In it, he argues that racism against white citizens has become a serious problem that most people are afraid to discuss.

“I know I’m breaking a taboo by using the term anti-white racism, but I do so intentionally, because it’s the reality some of our fellow citizens live with, and remaining quiet about it only aggravates their trauma,” he wrote.

When Copé claimed victory on Sunday before official results had been released, Fillon, who had been predicted to win, fired back a refusal to concede via television announcement. The vitriol between the two candidates and their supporters has reached new levels; it looked like a party implosion of the sort predicted by analysts when President Francois Hollande and his Socialists swept elections earlier this year.

On the other hand, Hollande’s popularity has been declining steadily. A November Ifop poll found that his approval rating has slipped to an all-time low of 41 percent since he took office. If UMP can get its act together, it has a real chance of regaining dominance of the Senate in 2014, not to mention the presidency in 2017. 

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