Foreign Affairs

Sarkozy’s party shifts right on immigration, marriage with Cope

Sarkozy's party shifts right on immigration, marriage with Cope
Newly elected UMP (Conservative Party) President Jean-Francois Cope

“The Republican Dilemma in French” is what some pundits have dubbed the recent fight for control of France’s UMP (conservative) party formerly led by Presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. Very much like the Republican Party in the U.S. after its defeat for the presidency, the UMP in the six months since Sarkozy was defeated has been undergoing a struggle for its soul between its business-oriented Establishment faction and that comprised of more grass-roots activists — the French equivalent of the tea party — who want a harder line on “red meat” issues such as immigration.

On Tuesday, it appeared as though the latter group had emerged triumphant. In the race to succeed Sarkozy as party president, Jean-Francois Cope—mayor of the working-class town of Meaux (near Paris) and a deputy (congressman)—campaigned as the candidate who would make the UMP the party of what he called “an uninhibited right.”

The rise to political leadership of someone who makes no secret being on the right in a party that has been historically “center right” could well be a harbinger of the path other conservative parties in Western democracies may take. It may also be the beginning of a bid for president of France by Cope himself, whose ambition is widely known.

Denouncing what he called “anti-white racism” in immigrant communities and calling for all-out opposition to Socialist President Francois Hollande’s plan to legalize same-sex marriage, the 48-year-old Cope apparently edged out the favorite of the “establishment,” former Prime Minister Francois Fillon. Although the 58-yar-old Fillon’s supporters claimed figures showing their man with the lead, the final count gave Cope a wafer-thin win—by 98 votes out of more than 175,000 cast by party members.

The results made headlines worldwide in part because polls had shown the urbane intellectual Fillon—who spoke of being more “a pedagogue than a demagogue”—a clear front-runner. Both candidates had close ties to Sarkozy, Fillon having been the former president’s prime minister throughout his tenure (2002-07) and Cope his government’s top spokesman for five years.

But Cope, as the BBC reported last week, “sits further to the right of the former president, particularly on immigration.” As secretary general (chairman) of the UMP since 2010, Cope (who is Jewish) began a debate on Islam in France and said that integration of Muslims in France had failed. He also raised eyebrows by tweeting a claim that a child had been robbed of his “pain au chocolat” pastry by “thugs” who were enforcing the Muslim holiday of Ramadan.

More than a few observers said this approach was a not-so-subtle way of courting voters who had backed the anti-immigration National Front, whose leader Marine LePen drew a stunning 17 percent of the vote and third place in the race for president this year, which was eventually won by Hollande.

“Cope’s ghoulish French kissing the National Front is a crippled echo of Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy,” Craig Copetas, Paris-based correspondent-at-large for Quartz/The Atlantic Group and author of the acclaimed “Mona Lisa’s Pajamas,” told Human Events, referring to the 37th president’s courtship of Southern voters on the issue of opposing school busing.

But Cope also called for all-out opposition to the Socialist Hollande on the issues of same-sex marriage and the president’s plan to tax people with annual incomes of 1 million Euros or more at a rate of 75 percent. In his words, “we need la resistance against a president who is in the process of paralyzing all economic activity in the country.”

Cope has made no secret of his desire to run for president against Hollande in 2017. As far back as 1991, in fact, he told guests at his wedding: “You’re lucky you’re at the wedding of a future president.” The marriage ended in divorce, but it seems quite obvious that the groom still harbors the ambitions he spoke of at his wedding.

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