French Opposition Rivals Agree to New Leadership Vote

The leadership battle on the French right comes to an end with a plan to call a revote.

The two candidates whose rivalry has split France’s former ruling party announced on Monday that they agree to call a new leadership vote to end their dispute.

Jean-François Copé, who was declared the winner in a primary election last month, and François Fillon, former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s prime minister, said in a statement that a new vote will be called in October of next year for the leadership of the right-wing Union pour un mouvement populaire.

Copé, who served as the party’s secretary general for two years before he ran for its leadership, previously insisted that he wouldn’t agree to a revote until after the 2014 local elections. He argued that Fillon had crossed a “red line” by separating himself and 68 supporters from the main conservative faction in parliament.

Fillon narrowly lost the leadership bid against Copé but accused his opponent of vote rigging. Votes from France’s overseas territories were supposedly “forgotten” in the first count. Results from New Caledonia in the Pacific and two voting stations in Alpes-Maritimes in the southeast of France were invalidated in the second. In both instances, Copé secured a slim majority of primary votes.

The former prime minister, who is seen as more moderate even if he shares Copé’s fiscal conservatism and laissez-faire economic views, might not stand for election in next year’s revote. He told French radio last week: “My ambition is to rally the French around a plan for national recovery but not necessarily as leader.” French media on Monday cited supporters of the former premier’s who similarly suggested that he might withdraw before the next primary is due.

The party leadership is as a stepping stone to the presidential nomination. However, Copé, a hardliner and protégé of Sarkozy’s, has promised to stand aside if the former president decided to run again in 2017.

A vast majority of French conservatives, if not a majority of French voters, would by now rather Sarkozy returned to the presidency than either of his possible successors. Their popularity, especially Copé’s, has plummeted.

According to an opinion poll published in Figaro Magazine late last month, 70 percent of French conservatives supported Fillon, down from 81 percent in October. 44 percent approved of Copé, down from 64 percent before the primary.

Among the general electorate, Fillon enjoyed the sympathy of 38 percent of voters, down from 44 percent a month before. Just one in five voters still saw a role for Copé in national politics, down from 27 percent in October.

Sarkozy, who wields influence over both Copé and Fillon, may be the only man capable of salvaging the Gaullist movement that dominated French politics until François Hollande’s Socialist Party won both the presidency and a majority in the National Assembly in May and June of this year.