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The Future of France's Right-Wing Opposition.

France's Gaullist right wing has experienced a clear split: in the ranks of the Union for Popular Movement (UMP), which was established during the era of President Jacques Chirac in a bid to unify various trends in the right, namely centrists and others. On Monday, after 24 hours of waiting for the results of the party's elections, in a race between Jean-Francois Cope, its former secretary general, and Francois Fillon, who was prime minister for five years under President Nicholas Sarkozy, Cope topped Fillon by only 98 votes.

The French opposition party, headed by Cope, will move further away from the principles championed by De Gaulle and closer to the extreme right, in order to attract National Front voters. Cope was a leading French politician involved in issuing a law banning the burqa, even though the number of women who wear the Islamic garb in France is no more than 1,000, out of a population of 68 million. During his campaign to head the party, Cope was famous for saying that he objected to seeing a pain au chocolat snatched from a child's hands because it was forbidden for him to eat during Ramadan - the statement became a staple of the popular French political comedy show featuring puppets, and also irked the Muslim community in France. Cope played on the French people's fear of Muslims and foreigners and led the extreme right's campaign, moving away from the Gaullist principles represented by Fillon, who is closer to the centrist and moderate strains in the right wing. As soon as Cope's victory was announced, he said his political thought was in line with that of Chirac and Sarkozy. Cope began his political career at Sarkozy's side, in the municipality of Paris, when Chirac was the mayor. However, he later fell out with Sarkozy, and then grew closer to him once again, during the final two years of his presidential term. Cope very much resembles Sarkozy in terms of his sizeable ambition and his headlong rush to reach office. He even announced his victory to head the UMP on Sunday evening, before the committee had finished counting the votes; this led to confusion and greater division among party members. Fillon complained about the voting in a number of areas and had been favored by all of the polls, but lost the battle in a close vote. Heading the UMP will certainly give him a campaign machine that will help him in the 2017 presidential race, which he has repeatedly said he will contest. But Fillon, who is 58, might also want to run, while the same is true for Alain Juppe, a former prime minister. If this happens, the party will be forced to hold primaries in 2014 or 2015, to select the best candidate for the presidential race, as with current President Francois Hollande in the Socialist Party - Hollande was not the party's secretary general, but ran in the primary and beat Martine Aubrey. Despite Cope's victory and the split in the party, this does not mean the end of Fillon's chances for the presidency of France. He continues to enjoy wide-scale popularity and also attracts centrists and moderates who represent one-half of the right, which is not prepared to support the extremism of Cope.

At the same time, the opposition of a Cope-led UMP to President Hollande and the Socialists might be tougher and more hard-line. This will exacerbate the political crisis in France, which is suffering from rising socio-economic problems. Cope, just like the eager Sarkozy during the Chirac era, might be the beneficiary of such a situation.

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Publication:Dar Al Hayat, International ed. (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Nov 21, 2012
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