Hardliner Narrowly Elected French Conservative Leader

Former budget minister Jean-François Copé ekes out a primary election victory.

France’s conservatives elected former budget minister Jean-François Copé their party leader on Sunday, the protégé of former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s who lost reelection in May of this year. He narrowly defeated former prime minister François Fillon in a primary contest.

Both candidates had claimed victory on Sunday night as less than a hundred votes separated the two, signaling a deep division within the party about how to regain power. An electoral commission announced the final results on Monday.

The Union pour un mouvement populaire lost not only the presidency but its majorities in both chambers of parliament this year. President François Hollande’s Socialists also control most local and regional governments. But his left-wing spending and tax policies have alienated many centrist voters. According to opinion polls, if presidential elections were held today, Sarkozy would handsomely win back the Élysée Palace.

Two thirds of conservative party members want Sarkozy to run again in 2017. Copé, a hardliner who believes that the party has to reach out to blue-collar Front national voters with aggressively secular and anti-immigration policies, had promised to stand aside if the former president decided to run again. Fillon was less likely to. His more moderate social views could have appealed to liberal voters, however.

While both candidates have been critical of the Socialists’ tax increases and Hollande’s challenge to Germany’s adherence to austerity, Fillon’s emphasis on fiscal discipline didn’t quite share Copé’s faith in unfettered markets. He also derided Copé’s “divisive” rhetoric which might scare off moderate voters in a general election. Fillon, on the other hand, would likely have struggled to appeal to nationalists and might have prompted rightwingers to defect if he had been elected.

In the first round of this year’s presidential election, Front national‘s Marine Le Pen got almost 18 percent of the vote while centrist candidate François Bayrou won 9 percent. In the first round of the 2007 election, the percentages were almost reversed with Le Pen winning 10 percent and Bayrou 19. In both second rounds, Bayrou split his vote between the conservatives and the Socialists while many Le Pen supporters stayed home.