UMP: After the Defeat Comes…

Well, Nicolas Sarkozy lost, and the right-wing force in the National Assembly lost. After the disappointment of his supporters settled, some still found it difficult to understand the fact that they are now the minority, making it clear that the largest consequence of this defeat will be on the Union pour un Movement Populaire (UMP) itself. Like the Parti Socialist (PS) in 2007, the right-wing party will experiment during a time of serious internal troubles and reshuffling of leadership. This period of hesitation is only natural after losing a major election, but in this case, it will be a different issue because of the particular nature of the UMP.

The UMP was created in 2002 between the two rounds of the Presidential election in order to help the incumbent, Jacques Chirac, secure his re-election. Before the election, Mr. Chirac understood the need for a party that could unite his side in the interest of triumph. At the time, the polls showed him behind PS Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, his rival for the election to come. Mr. Chirac thus engaged in the reunion of the Right and gather the support of his conservative party (Rassemblement Pour la République or RPR), but also of most moderates (Union des Démocrates Français or UDF) and the small faction of right-wingnliberals (Démocratie Libérale or DL). He succeeded when the united Right won the election after Jospin failed to qualify for the second round because of the major divisions on the Left side of the political spectrum.

After Chirac’s re-election, a fight for control of the new party – that ended up changing the party name from Union pour une Majorité Présidentielle to Union pour un Mouvement Populaire – took place between the supporters of President Chirac and those of the rising star Nicolas Sarkozy who eventually became President of the party in 2004. Two years later, he was the only candidate at the primaries and went on to win a relatively easy victory in the Presidential election of 2007. For three years, the UMP was the main tool utilized by Sarkozy to gain success. After his election, a Secretary-General position was created to manage the day-to-day operations, but the main decisions were still taken to the Elysée. Finally, in 2012, Secretary Jean-François Copé mobilised again the impressive organisation behind its leader Sarkozy, who this time failed to be re-elected.

Now that the campaign is over and Sarkozy has retired, it is time for the party to draw lessons from its failures. Soon after the defeat, the moderates of the party openly criticized the aggressive turn taken in January by the campaign team under the influence of counsellor Patrick Buisson. This approach had been deemed necessary to fight against FN Marine Le Pen who was dangerously close in the polls. Methodically, the incumbent went after Le Pen’s electorate and campaigned on immigration and security themes. This strategy worked in the first round of the election where Mr. Sarkozy easily qualified despite Le Pen strong presence. But his radical campaign was not suited to gather the moderate vote necessary to win the election and Mr. Hollande became President of the Republic.

Then, the hard times began for the UMP. A few weeks after the election, Roselyne Bachelot, a former UMP minister, publicly attacked Buisson’s influence over the former President. She accused him of making a strategy mistake, saying that he should not have tried to re-boot the 2007 campaign all over again. For her, Sarkozy would have won the election, had he concentrated on defending his economic results rather than stigmatise the minorities. Bachelot’s remarks highlighted an ideological tension that was felt through out the UMP campaign. On one side, the defenders of a radical line, behind Guéant and Buisson, pleaded to fight against the rising FN on its own themes to the point of blurring the ideological limits between the two parties. On the other side, the moderates like Borloo or Jouanno advocated a more social Right. Mr. Sarkozy’s campaign spokeswoman, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, revealed this tension. She was a moderate and most analysts observed that she was uncomfortable defending the radical line of the campaign.

The two sensibilities had been united by the charisma and success of Sarkozy. Now, he is gone and who is left is trying to unite and determine the future party ideology. Now, Copé effectively runs the UMP and he summoned a congress of the party for November to elect its new President. Though it is unlikely to be as simple as this, the media have dubbed the event as the first round of the 2017 Presidential election. Two candidates placed themselves in this perspective: Copé himself – he was recognised as such by Hollande during a debate this spring – and François Fillon, former Prime Minister. Alain Juppé, also a former Prime Ministre, offered an alternative. He announced that he would declare himself as a candidate if Copé and Fillon were willing to unite behind him so that the Congress could concentrate on the party ideology rather a fight of egos. He also guaranteed that if he was elected head of the party, he would not run for the Presidential nomination.

All three men are cautious not to appear partisan to one side of the UMP spectrum or another in order to maintain the unity of the party after the congress. However, they all lack – except maybe Juppé – the legitimacy to do so, and some members are already starting to create a distance between themselves and the party, as well as the official party-line. After the General Election, Borloo and 28 moderate Representatives formed a parliamentary group (the Union of Democrats and Independents) apart from the UMP. Borloo did not attempt to hide his ambition to re-create a moderate right-wing party, similar to the defunct UDF. Though one can doubt Borloo’s capacity to achieve his goal – he has already tried and failed to become a candidate in the Presidential election. However, this does show that the unhappiness within the moderates of the UMP is high enough to provoke a schism should the party continue on embracing a radical line. Meanwhile, “The Popular Right,” who represents this radical faction within the UMP would be likely to split if the party was to choose too moderate a platform.

The future internal campaign will thus be the time and place to have a deep ideological debate in the party. But if the new leader does not emerge as legitimate and in favour of consensus, the UMP might be in more danger than ever. That is the hope of Le Pen: to unite with a radical, yet republican Right to bring more legitimacy to her party. More than the profile of the opposition in today’s political world, the future congress of the UMP could also shape the Right for the years to come.

What’s your take on this? Please, feel free to comment or question. Hugo will try to answer as often as possible.

This article is part of an Opinion series on the state of French political parties. For the first article, “Where is the Left?”, click here.


  1. […] state of French political parties. The first part discussed the ideological dynamic of the Left and the second part was on the challenges to come for the […]

  2. […] state of French political parties. The first part discussed the ideological dynamic of the Left and the second part the challenges to come for the UMP. Last week, the third part dealt with the future of […]

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