Jean-François Copé, the leader of France’s Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), stepped down last month after a scandal over funding for Nicolas Sarkozy’s losing presidential campaign in 2012. The controversy revolves around a company called Bygmalion PR, owned by Copé’s close friends. It has been alleged that false invoices were used to cover up spending that went over the legal limit during the 2012 campaign.
According to documents alleged to be accounts seized by the police at Bygmalion headquarters, more than €17 million (£13.6 million) of false invoices for Sarkozy’s re-election campaign were billed as party expenses. Jérôme Lavrilleux, Sarkozy’s former deputy campaign manager, has said that neither Sarkozy nor Copé were aware of such illegal practice.
But it is becoming clear that the implications for the future of French politics are huge. Sarkozy is widely expected to mount a comeback campaign in 2017. If it is proven that Sarkozy massively overshot the legal ceiling for campaign spending (€22.5 million), this could end his hopes. Meanwhile, the UMP could be declared bankrupt if it has to return the state funding it received in 2012 and pay a hefty fine. The party is already reeling from a humiliation at the far-right’s hands in May’s EU parliament elections.
Copé’s decision to resign came after crisis talks at UMP headquarters three weeks ago. After a stormy encounter with party officials, Copé was ousted from the party leadership by a small committee of party grandees; Alain Juppé, Jean-Pierre Raffarin and François Fillon, three former prime ministers, will lead the party until October, when a permanent leader will be elected.
Hated on all sides
The 50-year-old Copé is no stranger to controversy. His sacking – rather than resignation – was seen by UMP senior officials as a question of party “survival”. His name and reputation are now in tatters.
But even before his downfall, Copé was already undoubtedly one the most unpopular politicians in France. The running gag in the UMP is that Copé manages to be even more unpopular than the the party itself, which is very unpopular – and all that despite the public’s dismal opinion of François Hollande and the governing Socialist Party.
What went wrong for this young and ambitious politician, who until his resignation aspired to run for the 2017 presidential election? The trouble with Copé is that he seems to antagonise absolutely everyone. His opponents describe him as sectarian and uncompromising; many of his party colleagues think ill of him too. He was always seen as a rather ineffective opposition leader, invariably demanding a Socialist minister’s resignation every time he was invited to comment on government policy.
But he is despised for more disturbing reasons too. Despite having a father of Romanian Jewish origin and a mother of Algerian Jewish origin, Copé found it acceptable to suggest in 2012 that Muslim youngsters tore pain au chocolt pastries from children’s hands during the Ramadan fast – this while he was campaigning for the UMP leadership. Critics read it as a cynical stand in order to appeal to the party’s most right-wing rank-and-file activists.
More recently, he attempted to have a children’s book called Tous à poil (Everybody gets naked) censored. In the book, various people (a baby, a babysitter, a policeman, a teacher, etc.) get undressed in order to go swimming in the sea. Copé claimed the book was recommended to teachers by the government, which was “pursuing an ideology”, and that it undermined figures of authority.
As often with Copé, the outrage was disingenuous. The book was not on the official list recommended for primary schools; the authors argued that they had intended to show real bodies in natural situations to counter images of undressed bodies altered by Photoshop or plastic surgery that proliferate in advertising and magazines. The incident reinforced his sour reputation as an unscrupulous old-style politician, with no real convictions.
Doomed from the start
Copé’s election as UMP party leader in 2012 was bitterly contested, and he won only the narrowest of victories, defeating Sarkozy’s former Prime Minister François Fillon with only 50.03% to 49.07% – a margin of only 98 votes. Both sides traded public insults and threatened to initiate lawsuits for defamation and electoral fraud.
As a result, the UMP was split in two rival factions, and left in a dire state of paralysis.
From the start of his tenure, Copé suffered from a legitimacy deficit. Henri Guaino, a former Sarkozy advisor at the Élysée palace, was quick to point out that the UMP had elected a new president, “but not a charismatic leader who can bring everyone with him”. In other words, the void left by Sarkozy had not been filled – and the former president had to come back to complete his unfinished business.
Copé wanted the re-energise the UMP by transforming it into an “uninhibited” right-wing party. In other words, he wanted to re-enact Sarkozy’s 2012 presidency campaign, hostile to immigrants, trade-unions and public service workers. The problem for Copé was that he was squeezed between a resurgent Front National, his own hostile UMP colleagues, and a Socialist president who has been veering to the right to placate international money markets.
Now that Jean-François Copé is gone, what will come out of the Bygmalion inquiry next? Nicolas Sarkozy, so keen to be restored to the French presidency, should be very afraid.
Philippe Marlière is a professor of French and European Politics at University College London (UK). On twitter: @PhMarliere.