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Le Monde, France

Mitt Romney and the UMP:
A Story of the Same Shortcomings


By Philippe Bernard

Translated By James Johnson

7 December 2012

Edited by Gillian Palmer


France - Le Monde - Original Article (French)

Beyond a simple fight between these most French of fighting cocks, what is at stake in the suicidal war between the heads of the UMP? To escape the weariness inspired by this sorry performance, it is tempting to take a step back and search for new angles of analysis and novel perspectives away from French shores.

One continent is no stranger to this type of situation, where two competitors in the same election simultaneously declare themselves winners and stubbornly refuse to back down, leading to self-destruction. That continent is Africa.

Voting systems monopolized by the outgoing president, an inability to declare credible results, voters held hostage in a war of egos: The flaws in some African elections are often the subject of condescending commentary in the former imperial power that is France. Those Africans, they whisper, are clearly not ready for democracy.

But it is on another continent, in the United States, that the deeper reasons for the UMP’s great rift find an illuminating analogue in Mitt Romney’s defeat. The French Right and American Republicans seem to be suffering from the same inability to sufficiently modernize their discourse on the role of the state, major social issues and the role of immigrants to drum up a majority of voters.

The failure of Nicolas Sarkozy’s strategy is at the base of the face-off between Copé and Fillon. Forced by the economic crisis to abandon the ultraliberal rhetoric that saw him elected in 2007, the former French president pressed the panic button of identity populism.

The aim: Profit from the nationalistic and xenophobic feelings stirred up by the crisis in order to attract voters alarmed by Europe and globalization and hostile to immigrants and perceived moral deprivation. We all know what became of the “ligne Buisson,” according to which Sarkozy adopted ever more extreme positions in order to draw votes from Marine Le Pen.

Because Mr. Sarkozy had drifted so far to the right with the campaign on national identity, his attempt to reassess naturalization and question anti-Islamic one-upmanship was not enough to rally the requisite number of moderate voters, as his campaign got caught between conflicting impulses.

On the scale of a country-cum-continent like the United States, the failure of the Republican candidate on November 6 came out of a stunningly analogous scenario. Having made so many pledges to tea party extremists to win the Republican nomination — including a promise to overturn Obama’s “socialist” law on health insurance, a refusal to raise taxes on the rich and regularize undocumented immigrants and ambiguity on abortion — Romney’s stark move back to the center in the two months leading up to the election was widely unconvincing against Barack Obama, who was even carrying the handicap of high unemployment figures.

On both sides of the Atlantic, conservative candidates tried in vain to paint themselves as guardians not only of the privileged, but also of those voters shaken up by deindustrialization and the threat of China, those quick to blame unemployment on immigrants and haunted by a pervading sense of decline.

In both cases, the majority of voters preferred the candidate most ready to defend state-run safety nets in the face of the uncertain waters of the economy, such as Obama's rescue of General Motors and the law on health care, and Hollande's defense of public administration.

In the United States, it was in fact a combination of young, female, black and Latino voters that secured the Democratic president’s re-election. In France, the rallying of 18- to 24-year-olds and Muslim voters — according to surveys, 57 percent and 86 percent, respectively, voted for Mr. Hollande in the second round — were factors in the socialist candidate’s victory.

“I think that there is a lot to learn from the re-election of Barack Obama, but also from the defeat of Mitt Romney,” Fillon supporter François Baroin stated in Le Figaro. “The Republican Party reduced its electoral base by moving its center of gravity to the right. What happened to it also happened to us, and I do not want the UMP, a major political party, to lose sight of the founding principle of togetherness that Jacques Chirac envisaged at its inception.”

How can conservatives get out of this corner, then, when their belief in deregulation has been discredited by the crumbling finance sector, their defense of the privileged classes alienates those brought to their knees by the crisis and their rampant xenophobia — anti-Latino in the United States and anti-Muslim in France — repels voters, especially those who are products of immigration?

And so the issues fuelling the squabble between Copé and Fillon — which all began with the made-up story of the pain au chocolat — are mirrored in the crisis of the Republican Party in the United States, triggered by the way that Mr. Romney danced around his positions.

Beyond the noise and fury created by this scrap of Parisian egos, the parallel ills of the American and French right will probably mark the end of a global political cycle heralded by Ronald Reagan’s “conservative revolution” in the 1980s, of which Nicolas Sarkozy was the last remaining French symbol.

On either side of the Atlantic, lowering taxes, reducing the size of government, re-evaluating social entitlements, stoking nationalism and attacking liberalism’s morals post-1968 are no longer enough to muster a majority. Analogous in their origins, the identity crises that both the French and American right are going through will make a wholesale aggiornamento a matter of necessity.



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