Vote for French Opposition Leader Raises Tensions

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PARIS -- A vote to choose the next leader of France's center-right opposition party was considered too close to call early Monday morning, and there were angry charges of electoral fraud.

The party, the Union for a Popular Movement, faced a choice between two men of very different styles: François Fillon, the elegant prime minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was defeated for re-election six months ago, and Jean-François Copé, a firebrand 10 years younger than Mr. Fillon who is the acting party leader. Some 300,000 party members were entitled to vote in 650 different polling places, and partial results late on Sunday showed Mr. Copé with a narrow lead.

Both men claimed victory, and the closeness of the result will not help the party find a clear direction.

Mr. Sarkozy's defeat badly bruised the party, known as the U.M.P. for its initials in French, and it was followed by defeat in legislative elections in June. Now, much like the Republican Party in the United States, the U.M.P. faces difficult choices as it tries to redefine itself and work through a crisis of identity.

Its one advantage now is that the Socialist government of François Hollande, who replaced Mr. Sarkozy, is already declining in popularity as it struggles to rein in the nation's budget deficit and avert a recession.

In essence, the U.M.P. must decide whether it will remain the political heir to the party founded by Charles de Gaulle after World War II, or will move to the right in the face of a challenge from the far-right National Front.

Mr. Fillon, 58, is a traditional conservative who, as prime minister, managed to remain personally popular even as his hyperactive boss sank in opinion polls. Quiet and urbane, and a touch dull, he has tried to steer the party toward the center, hoping to attract voters who opted to support Mr. Hollande for president but who are already growing disillusioned with his performance.

Mr. Copé, 48, generally shares Mr. Fillon's views on economic policy and Europe. But as a legislator and mayor of Meaux, northeast of Paris, he has been decidedly more provocative in his statements. He has also been unabashed in his efforts to woo voters from the National Front, whose strong showing at the polls this year split the conservative vote, sealing Mr. Sarkozy's fate as the country's first one-term president in three decades.

Mr. Copé describes himself as a "nonpracticing Jew" whose mother was born in Algeria and whose paternal grandfather immigrated from Romania. Some see him as a man in the Sarkozy mold, supporting the former president's tough policies on immigration and the role of Islam in French society. But critics call him "Sarkozy lite."

During the campaign, Mr. Copé -- a driving force behind a 2011 law that banned the wearing of the burqa, or full veil, in public -- adopted a more divisive tone, focusing on themes like stricter immigration laws and the reinforcement of France's secularism, as a not-so-subtle response to fears of radical Islam.

Last month, in "A Manifesto for an Uninhibited Right," Mr. Copé wrote that the suburbs of France's biggest cities had become bastions of "anti-white racism," a term much discussed and mocked in the French news media. He later used his Twitter account to relay an anecdote about a child who had been robbed of a chocolate pastry by "thugs" who were said to be enforcing the Ramadan fast. The remarks prompted outrage on the left and produced cringing among some U.M.P. members.

"All these little phrases are toxic and dangerous," said François Baroin, a former Sarkozy finance minister and a supporter of Mr. Fillon. Benoist Apparu, a former junior minister, concurred. "Such positions weaken our political family," he said.

Others disagreed.

"He speaks the truth about these things that others are afraid to say," said Nadine Morano, a former minister close to Mr. Sarkozy who backed Mr. Copé. His frankness is especially appealing to "exasperated" young conservatives, she said. "They are very attached to the language of the truth."

For Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, Mr. Copé's strategy was an admission that party leaders are out of touch. "The U.M.P. rank and file feels much closer to our positions than to those of the U.M.P. leadership," she said in a radio interview. "Mr. Copé is chasing after his base."

This election will give analysts "a sense of the balance of power," said Bruno Cautrès, a public opinion specialist at the Center for Political Research at the Institut d'Études Politiques, or Sciences Po. "It will determine their electoral strategy -- not only for 2017, but for interim elections in 2014."

After losing the presidency and both houses of the legislature in June, the party is now focusing on local and municipal elections scheduled in just over a year's time. Local government is dominated by the left now, but with Mr. Hollande's government struggling, analysts suggested that the right could make real gains.

Regardless of who becomes the leader of the party, the U.M.P. is likely to continue its delicate dance with far-right voters while avoiding any outright alliance with the National Front. "Marine Le Pen is young; she's only 43 years old," Mr. Cautrès said. "The French right will have to deal with her for some time."

Both Mr. Fillon and Mr. Copé reject any partnership with the National Front, a move that would be considered politically suicidal.

The U.M.P. is already displaying some nostalgia for Mr. Sarkozy, 57. After a summer spent on the beaches of Morocco and southern France, he began a series of public appearances that seemed choreographed to keep him in the picture for the presidential race in 2017.

The French news media has seemed only happy to oblige him: "Yoo-hoo! I'm back!" was the headline on a recent cover of the magazine Le Point, over a photo of Mr. Sarkozy.

"Like any president who has been beaten -- especially after only one term, and so narrowly -- he dreams of revenge," Mr. Cautrès said. "Officially, he makes it seem like he has turned the page, that he lives another life. But that is a complete fantasy."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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