Paris: Hopes for a ceasefire in the battle within France’s right-wing opposition UMP were dashed Wednesday as party chief Jean-Francois Cope rejected plans for a referendum on a new leadership vote.
The interminable struggle — which has forced ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy to intervene — looked set to continue after lawmakers loyal to ex-premier Francois Fillon formally broke away from the UMP’s parliamentary wing.
The UMP, the political heir to the movement founded by Charles de Gaulle after Second World War, has been on the verge of collapse over the dispute, which saw a November 18 leadership vote tarnished by accusations of vote-rigging.
The rival camps appeared to have reached a breakthrough late Tuesday when they agreed to a snap party referendum on whether to hold a new leadership vote.
But Cope backed away Wednesday, saying the conditions had not been met for a referendum and that Fillon had crossed the line by forming a splinter parliamentary group.
“The red line has been crossed and I am drawing the conclusions from that,” Cope said, denouncing the “lamentable spectacle we are offering the French.”
Fillon’s group, dubbed the Rally for the UMP, filed formal documents splitting from the rest of the party late on Tuesday, with 68 of the 194 UMP-affiliated deputies in the lower house National Assembly signing up.
The move not only damages the UMP’s credibility, but deprives it of much of the 42,000 euros (Dh198,292) per deputy it receives every year in parliamentary public funding.
Fillon said the group would re-join the rest of the UMP as soon as a deal was reached on holding a new leadership vote.
A party appeals commission on Monday confirmed Cope’s win in the election, raising his margin of victory from 98 votes to nearly 1,000 following an examination of complaints over alleged irregularities.
Fillon’s camp has accused the commission of bias and said he will pursue legal action including a civil suit to have the results overturned.
Both Fillon, 58, and Cope, 48, are fiscal conservatives advocating free-market policies and economic reforms, but Cope has carved out a niche on the right of the UMP with his tough-talking approach to immigration and Islam.
After staying out of the dispute last week, Sarkozy stepped in behind the scenes on Monday, meeting with the two rivals and reportedly pushing the referendum plan.
Sarkozy is anxious to maintain the UMP — a decade-old coalition of Gaullist conservatives, centrists, Christian democrats and liberals — in case he decides to make a comeback bid for the presidency in 2017.
Though defeated after a single term by Socialist Francois Hollande in May’s presidential vote, the charismatic Sarkozy, 57, remains very popular with party rank-and-file and many expect he will return to politics.
The ridicule foisted on the party over the leadership debacle has done serious damage to the UMP’s image and has been a windfall for Hollande as he struggles with a flat economy and falling popularity.
Party heavyweight Xavier Bertrand, a former labour minister, said the UMP needed to move forward quickly to end the embarrassing crisis.
“I’m sick of this mess,” he told Europe 1 radio. “Yesterday Nicolas Sarkozy imposed a solution on the two of them... and again this morning there is a deadlock.”
Bertrand, who backed Fillon in the race, also called for a new leadership vote, an idea polls show is supported by an overwhelming majority of French voters and UMP supporters.