Amid the dust settling from the first round of French municipal elections Sunday – a ballot that saw the ruling Socialist Party (PS) take a beating as the far-right Front National (FN) party made impressive strides –a new scandal emerged Monday that could further destabilize the center-right UMP Party: several leading French publications revealed that a victorious UMP candidate in the small southern town of La Grande-Motte, Lina Delnott, posted a photo of a gorilla to her Facebook page on March 14, comparing it to France’s black justice minister Christine Taubira. (The offending post has since been deleted).
This is the second and equally appalling round of an old scandal. Several members of the FN came under fire in 2013 for making similar comments about Taubira. But that it is a UMP politician making the inflammatory comparison this time around casts an unflattering light on a party already squirming under the microscope after recordings made of former president Nicolas Sarkozy during his time in office were leaked to the press in early March — the UMP’s chosen strategy: blame the Socialists! — even as it struggles to contain high-profile infighting and financial difficulties. Now, Monday’s scoop about Delnott, who is admittedly small political fish, offers the PS a chance to go on the offensive and deflect attention from its own lackluster performance in local elections. (Exit polls show left candidates trailing their conservative counterparts.) It also makes UMP president Jean-François Copé’s celebratory proclamation of the party’s “rebirth” into a piece of ammunition for its opponents. (“Rebirth as what?”, one can hear the Socialists shout.)
Yes, the UMP held its own in Sunday’s ballots with 46.% of votes, suggesting local, rather than national, politics were predominant in voters’ minds. But the party’s decision to abandon a tacit agreement with the PS — i.e., cede to the leading party in the case of a three-way run-off in order to block an FN candidate’s victory — may yet backfire. Copé’s optimism notwithstanding, party leaders are bracing for the showdown against FN candidates in the second round, who could siphon off crucial support. More broadly, it remains to be seen how far the UMP, which has faltered since the defeat of its candidate, Sarkozy, in the 2012 presidential race, can and will shift rightwards — or if it will eventually forge ties with the FN itself — as the far-right continues to encroach on its territory.
VISUAL CONTEXT: The UMP faltered in 2012
For now, UMP leaders are making appropriately indignant noises over Delnott’s Facebook posting; on Monday, Copé told French media that a sanctioning and expulsion from the party were in process. His reaction mirrors that of FN leader Marine Le Pen this December, when she expelled Anne-Sophie Leclere in December from the party ballot for a similar gaffe, as part of Le Pen’s efforts to revamp the FN’s image (and marginalize its radical elements.) What better proof of that endeavor’s success — and the subsequent threat posed to France’s two party politics — than the news Monday that the UMP, long one of France’s mainstream parties, is taking its damage control cues from none other than the Front National?