The Crazy Week of French Politics

By Staff Political Cartoonist Justin Walker.

Who could have imagined a week like this? Who could have imagined last Sunday how disruptive the week to come would be for all parties in French politics? Indeed, very few could have. Of course, there were some analysts who foresaw the risks at stake with the internal election in the former majority party. Some also mentioned the problems that could emerge from the controversy around Nantes’ new airport project in Notre-Dame-des-Landes. But absolutely no one anticipated what deep fractures this week would create.

The UMP election too close to call

It all began the night of Sunday, November 18. During the day, the very tense campaign for the presidency of the former majority party, the UMP ended with the internal election. Only members of the party were allowed to vote and the difference between the two candidates was expected to be close. Around 11 p.m., even though the estimates were still very close, Jean-François Copé claimed the victory for his camp. A few minutes later, the other candidate François Fillon did the same. Both claimed that the majority of votes to be counted would be in their favor , leading them to victory.

Already, this episode made the commentators laugh. But very soon, the tension began to grow. Both camps accused the other of cheating through ballot box stuffing. The fear spread among UMP partisans that their party had experienced the same chaos as Parti Socialiste (PS) did in 2008, when the election for the First Secretary position ended with a hundred-vote difference and threw discredit on the party.

The results were known Monday night when the party Commission for Electoral Control (CoCoE) proclaimed Jean-François Copé the winner by a mere 98 votes. This marked a success for the more conservative line within the right-wing party. Soon, the President of the UMP offered a post of Vice-President to his former rival, who refused it. His strategy was to settle his authority as quickly as possible by attacking the Government on the gay marriage controversy.

Hollande hesitates over gay marriage

On Monday November 19 the President of the Republic was strongly criticized for declaring in front of the Association of the Mayors of France that the mayors opposed “marriage for all.” They would be able to use their “freedom of conscience” to delegate the celebration of gay marriage to their deputy. Such a concession was made as a hope to calm down opponents of the reform who demonstrated strongly the weekend before.

However, this compromise proposition was welcomed bitterly by the President’s own supporters. The Greens, allied with the PS in power, Front de Gauche (FG), and also members of the PS, declared their discontent with the President’s remark. Finally, the spokeswoman for the government declared that Hollande has been misunderstood and that no amendment would be ratified.

The new event has done nothing but weaken the collaboration between the two government parties, and actually, there is greater questioning among the Greens to quit the Government. Hopefully for Hollande, this episode passed almost without notice from the main media who were already turned towards the new turn of events at the UMP.

UMP: Round Two

While François Fillon recognized his defeat on Monday night, Wednesday brought a new surprise. The former Prime Minister’s campaign team announced that the CoCoE miscounted the votes and forgot to include the votes from the Pacific territories of New Caledonia, stealing the victory from Fillon. They also called on Alain Juppé, another former Prime Minister and highly respected figure in the party, to serve as an impartial mediator to get the party out of its crisis.

While Juppé declared he was ready to collaborate with both candidates, Copé said that he preferred to call the party, Recourse Commission (CNR), to arbitrate the election. Both candidates remained unyielding until Juppé threw an ultimatum upon the trench war that his party has become. But while Fillon accepted Juppé’s condition, Copé instead chose to attack his rival on another front: electoral fraud. He declared being in possession of proof showing how Fillon’s team managed to stuff ballot boxes.

In one week, the UMP has deteriorated its image and the crisis has continued. While Juppé, Fillon and Copé have agreed to meet this Sunday night, a compromise agreement still seems unlikely to happen. Meanwhile, the extreme-right party, the Front National (FN), and center-right party, Union des démocrates et indépendants (UDI), have a significant growth in their membership: another bad sign for the UMP.

Discord Over New Airport in the Prime Minister’s City

If the Socialist Party can profit from the UMP internal crisis, it would not be able to get some rest. For years, opposition has grown against the project of a new airport in Nantes. The project heralded by the Prime Minister and former Nantes mayor Jean-Marc Ayrault is contested for being useless and harmful to the environment. Over the last few weeks, this opposition has gathered and united. Now they are launching protests in the form of land occupation and demonstrations.

Though the Green members of the government support these protests, the Socialists have decided to go forward with the project. Early in the week, the police proceeded with an intervention to free the construction site. The measure was heavily criticized, as the use of force is often associated with right-wing governments. Nevertheless the protesters came back the day after only to be thrown out again.

While the UMP crisis diverted the media’s attention at the beginning of the week, now they also emphasize how the left-wing government has broken on this subject with his supporters and allies. A big demonstration was held this Sunday against the project, and both President Hollande and Ayrault are putting their majority at risk by insisting on the project’s continuation. However, quitting now would make them look weak, which they cannot afford at this time. Less violent though it may be, the crisis may last longer for the Socialist Party than for the UMP.

Hugo Argenton is LJP’s French columnist. He lives in Lille, France. The opinions expressed in this editorial are his own and are not indicative of LJP’s views.

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