French Conservatives Seek Leadership from Former Premiers

The French right appoints three former prime ministers to revive its electoral prospects following a financial scandal.

French prime minister François Fillon in parliament, Paris, July 21, 2009
French prime minister François Fillon in parliament, Paris, July 21, 2009 (Richard Ying)

Following a disappointing European election result and a financial scandal that forced party president Jean-François Copé to resign last month, France’s conservatives appointed three former prime ministers to lead the Union pour un mouvement populaire on Tuesday.

“My first job is to shed light on the financial activities of the party,” said François Fillon who served as President Nicolas Sarkozy’s prime minister for five years.

A centrist, Fillon fought a bitter succession battle with the more right-wing Copé in 2012 after Sarkozy resigned the party leadership following his defeat in that year’s presidential election.

Copé resigned two weeks ago after French media revealed that false invoices had been used to cover up illegal campaign spending in 2012 when he was general secretary of the party.

Alain Juppé and Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who were both prime ministers under Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, joined Fillon to head the party while Luc Chatel, a former education minister and Sarkozy loyalist, will take over as general secretary.

Fillon told French radio that a new party leader will be chosen at a party congress that is yet to be scheduled. “We can deal with this without a civil war,” he said.

A turnaround in the party’s prospects is desperately needed as last month’s European Parliament elections showed when the conservatives won under 21 percent of the votes, compared to almost 29 percent in 2009. They lost seats to both the far-right Front national and François Bayrou’s centrist and outspokenly pro-European Mouvement démocrate.

The infighting on the French right is as much about personalities as it is about the party’s future electoral strategy. Fillon is believed to still harbor leadership ambitions and might want to run for the conservatives’ presidential nomination in 2017. His liberal leanings could make him a more viable national contender whereas Copé, a hardliner on immigration issues and a protégé of Sarkozy’s, was seen as more likely draw votes from the Front national.

A majority of French conservatives, if not a majority of French voters, would by now rather Sarkozy returned to the presidency. An April survey by OpinionWay showed the unusually unpopular incumbent, François Hollande, would win just 19 percent support in the first round of a presidential election, compared to 29 percent for Sarkozy and 25 percent for Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front national. In a second-round runoff, Sarkozy would get 67 percent of the votes versus 33 percent for Le Pen.

But another poll published by Le Parisien newspaper and the TV news channel i-Tele this week showed only 14 percent of voters favoring Sarkozy while 23 percent said they preferred Juppé.

Asked on Friday if he was planning a comeback, the former president said, “You can’t escape your destiny.”