Fillon Divides French Right, Copé Rejects Truce

Jean-François Copé says his challenger crossed a “red line” by splitting conservatives.

French conservative leader Jean-François Copé on Wednesday rejected a proposal put forth by former president Nicolas Sarkozy to hold a referendum on whether or not to repeat the party’s primary election after his challenger François Fillon took 68 deputies with him to form a breakaway faction in parliament.

Fillon, who narrowly lost a leadership bid against Copé last week, had announced the formation of a separate conservative group in the National Assembly on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he got seventy out of 132 conservative members of the upper chamber of parliament to line up behind a proposal to call a new leadership election, prompting Copé to reject a compromise brokered by Sarkozy to organize a referendum among party members. “The red line has been crossed and I draw the consequences from that,” he told Europe 1 radio.

Fillon, for his part, insisted, “The only solution that is wise, efficient and democratic is a new vote.”

The former prime minister disputes the outcome of a primary election in which he lost the leadership to Copé since votes from New Caledonia in the Pacific and two voting stations in Alpes-Maritimes in the southeast of France were invalidated. Both camps claim that there was vote rigging on the other side.

The leader of the Union pour un mouvement populaire in parliament, Christian Jacob, who backs Copé, warned on Tuesday that the split could be “irreparable” but Fillon supporters Jérôme Chartier disputed that claim the next day, saying, “Nothing is irreversible.” Patrick Ollier, who challenged Jacob for the leadership of the party in parliament in 2007, confirmed, “We establish this group as a precaution.”

The party infighting is as much about personalities as it is about its future electoral strategy. Copé, a hardliner and protégé of Sarkozy’s, has promised to stand aside if the former president decided to run again in 2017. Fillon has made no such promise and may be a more viable general election candidate as he can appeal to the center whereas Copé would likely draw votes from the far right.

A poll conducted for Figaro Magazine reflects that even if both candidates’ popularity has suffered. 70 percent of French conservatives supports Fillon, down from 81 percent in October. 44 percent approves of Copé, down from 64 percent before the primary. Among the general electorate, Fillon enjoys the sympathy of 38 percent of voters, down from 44 percent a month ago. Copé’s numbers are more dismal: just one in five voters sees a role for him in national politics, down from 27 percent in October.