Faced with the likelihood of losing its majority in next month’s parliamentary elections, France’s centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) is being forced to do some soul-searching. Still stinging from defeat in Sunday’s presidential poll, many UMP lawmakers will likely have to make a difficult choice between honouring the established tradition of blocking the far-right in elections and the threat of losing their seats in parliament.
France’s political left is brimming with enthusiasm after Socialist Party candidate François Hollande won the May 6 presidential runoff in a tight and bitter race against incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. Opinion surveys say Socialists should also easily win control of parliament’s lower-house National Assembly next month.
France's parliamentary elections
Will take place on June 10 and 17, in a two-round vote. All 577 seats in the lower-house National Assembly are being contested. With 305 seats, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) is currently the majority party in parliament. The UMP has led France’s most important legislative body for the past 10 years.
According to a voter intention survey this week by French polling firm BVA, the Socialist Party and its allies on the left are on pace to win 46 percent of ballots on June 10. That score compared to 33 percent support for UMP candidates and 17 percent for the surging far-right National Front (FN) party, BVA said.
Sarkozy, who plans to quit politics when he steps down on May 15, took a risk by adopting the far-right’s hardline rhetoric on EU borders, security and immigration during his campaign. While he failed to pick up enough far-right voters to win re-election, he managed to scare off centrist leader François Bayrou and other moderates.
That has left UMP members with little room to block a left-wing takeover of parliament, other than turning to the FN.
In an interview with the conservative French magazine Valeurs actuelles, published on Thursday, FN leader Marine Le Pen said she was not closed to discussing election agreements with local UMP candidates. While the FN candidate said no alliance with the UMP was possible on the national level, she said “specific cases” would be considered.
For many standing UMP parliamentarians, cutting a deal with the FN could be the only chance of keeping their jobs. According to right-wing daily Le Figaro, 115 conservative lawmakers, nearly half of the UMP members in parliament, face a serious risk of losing their seat.
However, under former UMP leader Jacques Chirac in the 1990s and 2000s, the party adopted a policy of strictly rejecting agreements with the FN that would legitimise the far-right party.
Jean-Yves Camus, a French researcher and expert on the far right, said isolated agreements between the right and far right have nevertheless existed.
In mayoral elections in 1983 and regional elections in 1998, the far right succeeded in forging local alliances with the Rally for the Republic (RPR), the party that was transformed into the UMP in 2002. “All of the people that decided to ally themselves were sanctioned by the party bosses, but the taboo was already broken,” explained Camus.
In what is largely being interpreted as a response to Le Pen’s comments, UMP party chief Jean-François Copé has called the party’s candidates into line, telling them “there will be no electoral alliances nor discussions with the FN leadership.” In an interview with Figaro Magazine on May 10, Copé warned that UMP candidates who transgressed would “face all the consequences at the national level”.
Pragmatism or ideology?
Despite Cope’s warning, the question of whether to open to the far right continues to haunt the UMP. French Defence Minister Gérard Longuet began to breach the closed door last week when he told RFI radio that Le Pen was “someone the [UMP] could speak to”.
And on Thursday, conservative MP Jean-Paul Garraud was forced to explain himself over a memo he wrote after Sarkozy’s defeat:
“A majority of voters from the UMP and the FN favour agreements. What is more important for France? Only this question must guide us. Should we be pragmatic or remain stuck in ideological holes?” penned Garraud, a representative from the south-west Gironde department.
Copé has perhaps wider concerns when he continues to tow the party line. While the FN’s image has recently softened, a majority of French voters remain wary of the anti-immigration party. According to an opinion poll by Viavoice this week, 62 percent of respondents said they disapproved of electoral accords between the UMP and FN.
Finding an answer to the FN question could prove crucial, not just for outcome of the parliamentary poll but also for the long-term future of the UMP. In an interview with AFP news agency, Brigitte Baréges, another conservative MP, has gone as far as evoking a split within the party.
“For now, the UMP is holding to the idea that as long as we are facing the parliamentary polls we stay together… After, we’ll see. We’ll do head count and based on that maybe we can talk about how our party works,” said Baréges.
The possibility of a UMP “implosion” has been on the lips of observers in the French media for weeks. Should they drop the reigns of parliament, and clash to determine who will take over after Sarkozy, that prospect seems all the more likely.