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The statesman or the attack dog? Sarkozy party elects new leader

media Jean-Francois Cope and Francois Fillon at the France 2 television studios … Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

France’s mainstream right-wing opposition party, the UMP, votes Sunday for a new president in a much-publicised contest that is more about style than content. The two candidates, former prime minister François Fillon and current UMP general secretary, Jean-François Copé, have few differences on policy but very different images.

Despite his defeat in this year’s presidential election, the political shade of Nicolas Sarkozy hovers over the election.

Fillon served as Sarkozy’s prime minister throughout his term in office, while Copé spearheaded the no-holds-barred campaign for his reelection.

Most commentators see the election as a dry run for choosing the party’s presidential candidate in 2017.

Not so UMP MP Axel Poniatowski.

“There will be a new election in November 2015, one year before the primaries for the presidential election, so we are only speaking of a situation where we are choosing the leader for the three coming years," he told RFI.

“I don't think this election will have any impact at all on our candidate for the presidential election four and a half years from now."

Atlough the Sarkozy campaign was not crowned with success, President François Hollande’s Socialist government sailed straight into trouble. 

A steadily worsening economic crisis leading to a wave of redundancies, mass unemployment and a cost-cutting, tax-hiking budget. 

That has been accompanied by gaffes and divisions in the government that have led to accusations of amateurishness and inconsistency.

But the UMP has not milked Hollande’s plummeting popularity for all it is worth, perhaps partly because of the vacuum left by Sarkozy’s retirement from the political arena.

While nobody could accuse Copé, in particular, of going easy on the anti-Hollande soundbites, the media spotlight has been turned on the battle at the top of the UMP and, as the vote has approached, the rivals have turned their invective on each other.

A much-touted TV debate last month may have been bland to the point of boring but the last week has delivered plenty of feisty rhetoric – Fillon accusing Copé of “chasing after buzz at any price” and taking “every right turn possible”, while his redoubtable rival accused the ex-PM of being “the right’s Hollande” responsible for an opposition “in carpet-slippers”.

In fact, the two agree on most headline political issues.

Parliamentary elections 2012

They claim that French bosses are weighed down by taxes, labour costs and the 35-hour week, they oppose same-sex marriage and giving non-EU nationals the right to vote in council elections and they back their party’s new line of refusing to call for a vote for Socialist candidates facing the far-right Front National (FN).

But Fillon is undoubtedly lower key than the flamboyant, not to say aggressive, Copé.

The former prime minister’s USP is his supposed “statesmanlike” qualities, which, he claims, would allow him to rally the party and its supporters in the run-up to the next presidential election in 2017.

Copé, on the other hand, promises to roll up his sleeves and start campaigning right away, predicting a wave of UMP victories in 2014’s municipal elections just for starters.

To do this he intends to continue the rightward shift in the party’s rhetoric that he masterminded during the presidential campaign in an effort to win back voters who had defected to the FN.

That may not have been entirely successful but it does seem to have put the Socialists on the run on many of Hollande’s campaign promises. They seem in no hurry to introduce votes for foreigners, which Copé and friends assured the voters would lead to halal food in school canteens, and have accepted a former rail boss’s recommendation to let employers off millions of euros-worth of social security charges, which the UMP claimed were clogging up the nation’s creative juices.

Whether he wins or not, Copé looks unlikely to change his style, if his recent claims of growing "anti-white racism" and pains au chocolat snatched from children's hands during ramadan are anything to go by.

The election is the first time that all paid-up UMP members have been able to vote for their party leader and they are doing so in polling stations across the country.

Although Copé has an enthusiastic following, opinion polls have show Fillon likely to win, many party members preferring not to lose the middle ground by a too blatant pursuit of voters tempted by the far right.

The result is to be announced on Sunday evening.

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