March 31, 2014 3:06 pm

France’s centre-right savours defeat of François Hollande

Right wing politiciqns Nadine Morano (L), Pierre Charron (C) and Jean-Louis Costes (R) take 'selfie' pictures at the UMP Headquarter during the second round of the French municipal elections, on March 30, 2014 in Paris. France's ruling Socialist Party suffered heavy losses in nationwide local elections Sunday which were marked by a breakthrough success for the far-right National Front. AFP PHOTO / PATRICK KOVARIKPATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/Getty Images©AFP

Right-wing politicians Nadine Morano (left), Pierre Charon (centre) and Jean-Louis Costes (right) take 'selfie' pictures at UMP headquarters

Almost two years after the painful defeat of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, his centre-right UMP party has once again enjoyed the intoxicating taste of election victory.

The question now is whether the UMP can convert its heavy defeat of incumbent President François Hollande’s Socialist party in local elections into a convincing push for a return to national power in 2017.

It has some big challenges to overcome, notwithstanding the scale of its win on Sunday. The party remains riven by leadership rivalries. It faces a rising insurgency to its right from the National Front of Marine Le Pen. And it is far from having a settled policy offering.

Sunday’s results at least restored some much-needed brio to the party. Overshadowed in the first round of voting by a headline-grabbing breakthrough by the FN, the UMP was the clear winner in the second round of voting.

Although it failed to seize the cherry of Paris from the socialists, it took most of the rest of the cake.

According to interior ministry figures, the UMP and its allies took control of 572 towns with a population above 10,000, up from 433 in the last local elections in 2008. The socialists and other left parties tumbled to 349 from 509.

The result should enable the right to win back a majority in the Senate, the lower house of parliament, in a September vote as senators are elected largely by local councillors.

It was the first time the party had achieved a clear victory in local elections since it was created as an alliance of former centre-right movements in the early 2000s. Jean-François Copé, the current party president, hailed a “blue wave” and said the results showed the UMP had once more become the country’s leading party.

But the victory may only exacerbate a simmering battle over who will emerge as the party’s presidential candidate for 2017.

“The leadership question is central,” wrote Guillaume Tabard, a close observer of the UMP, in the newspaper Le Figaro. “We know that on the right, these wars are never far away.”

The [UMP] leadership question is central. We know that on the right, these wars are never far away

- Guillaume Tabard, a close observer of the UMP, writing in Le Figaro

Mr Sarkozy remains by far the most popular choice of UMP activists. His camp has signalled strongly he is plotting a comeback. But he is hampered by persistent allegations of wrongdoing, including that he took illicit campaign funds from former Libyan dictator Muammer Gaddafi (which he vehently denies).

The former president is also strongly opposed, albeit discreetly, by an array of rivals. These include Mr Copé, François Fillon, Mr Sarkozy’s former prime minister, and Alain Juppé, himself a former prime minister and foreign minister. A handful of other young contenders are also jostling for position.

The party is committed to holding a presidential primary in 2016. This means its effort to present a united front to the electorate looks set to be undermined by leadership squabbles for another two years.

Meanwhile, it has the FN snapping at its heels for votes on the right. Mr Juppé insisted the FN’s performance in the local elections should be kept in perspective. “They conquered 13 towns and we conquered 155, that is the balance of force between us,” he said, speaking before final result tallies were fixed.

But the FN’s score in the minority of towns it contested was much greater than the 7 per cent it won of the total vote. An OpinionPolitique poll on Monday showed the UMP with just a two-point lead over the FN in the run up to the European parliament elections due at the end of May, by 24 per cent over 22 per cent, with the socialists trailing in third on 19 per cent.

Pressure from the FN has for some years caused tension within the UMP over how far to lean rightward on issues such as crime and immigration in a bid to neutralise its far-right rival. Mr Sarkozy’s tilt that way helped him win the Elysée Palace in 2007, but not in 2012.

Equally, the party is divided over the key issue of the sclerotic economy, with some uncomfortable with Mr Copé’s espousal of “liberal” policies on public spending and public sector job cuts.

These are the issues the UMP must iron out. “We must now face up to our responsibilities,” said Mr Juppé, positioning himself as the party’s elder statesman. “The right and the centre must now prepare for a change of power.”

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