Jean-François Copé, the head of France’s main opposition party, the center-right UMP, agreed to step down Tuesday amid allegations of fraud. A temporary triumvirate of former premiers François Fillon, Alain Juppé and Jean-Pierre Raffarin will take over Copé’s leadership duties once his resignation takes effect on June 15.
Copé’s ouster follows months of mounting rumors that he mishandled party finances, notably during the 2012 re-election campaign of former President Nicolas Sarkozy (Copé was party general secretary at the time). The crisis intensified Monday when police officers searched UMP offices in response to allegations by a French event organizer that the UMP asked for fake invoices totaling $16.3 million to mask the campaign’s mounting price tag. Also Monday, Fillon – an erstwhile rival of Copé – revealed the growing tensions within the party: “We always listen to you with much attention, Jean-Francois. But how can we have trust?”
The timing couldn’t be worse. Sunday saw both the UMP and the ruling Socialist Party (PS) suffer a bruising defeat by France’s far-right Front National (FN) at the European parliamentary elections (see chart). The FN won 25% of votes, compared to 20% for the UMP and 15% for the PS.
That last figure is particularly illustrative. Socialist President François Hollande is the most unpopular leader in the nation’s recent history; his approval ratings have dropped to a dismal 18%, according to an April poll. His party isn’t doing much better. Riven by infighting – thanks in part to recently appointed Prime Minister Manuel Valls, whose brash persona and rightward leaning tendencies have ruffled quite a few feathers — the PS has struggled to present a cohesive front on key issues like economic policy and immigration. In the process, it has created a wealth of opportunities for France’s opposition.
Yet the UMP has proven unable to seize on public frustration with Hollande and the ruling party, thanks to weak party leadership, political scandals – think the embarrassing “Sarkoleaks” debacle — thinning coffers and internal divisions. (On the eve of European elections, a handful of party dissidents were refusing to vote for their own camp). The UMP’s strategy of steering further to the right in an attempt to co-opt FN votes has had middling success. Though the party made a respectable showing in legislative elections last month, holding on to critical cities like Marseilles and Montpellier, it continues to falter in public opinion polls. In the meanwhile, FN leader Marine Le Pen has upped her offensive, bundling the UMP and the PS as a collective example of the failings of mainstream French politics.
Now, the UMP is primed for a frenetic race to find a new leader and candidate for the 2017 presidential election less than two years after the bitter Copé-Fillon battle divided the party. Though Fillon and Juppé are expected to throw their hats in the ring at a party congress scheduled for October, Sarkozy remains the obvious choice. Then again, the former president has his own share of scandal trailing him – i.e., allegations of illegal funding of his 2007 presidential campaign by late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi — and may be called in by investigators in regards to his role in the Copé affair. Luckily, Sarkozy and the UMP alike have three years to recover and regain voters’ confidence. With the FN playing offense, the party’s selection of a new leader come fall is more critical than ever.