The main French opposition party, the centre-right UMP, has so far shown little appetite for the next European Parliament elections in May.
During his address to the press on 8 January, Jean-François Copé, the president of the party, pronounced the words Europe and European only twice in 35 minutes, focusing instead on internal affairs such as unemployment, fiscal policy and the March local elections.
Copé did however briefly mention the EU elections at the end of his speech, to mark the party’s difference with the extreme-right, the Front National (FN).
“We are profoundly European unlike the FN," he said.
But “we want a different Europe”, the former minister added, stressing that there was no naivety towards the EU in his party, or as he put it in French, no “eurobéatitude”.
“We want a Europe that delivers results, solutions rather than a Europe of bureaucracy,” he added.
The French centre-right also wants the European Union to be “less unconscious of the dangers that threaten the Middle-East and Africa, a European defence, a less naïve Europe in international relations and a more courageous Europe when it comes to protecting its external borders.”
Asked by EurActiv.fr to comment on the possibility of EU Commissioner Michel Barnier leading the European People’s Party’s (EPP) list at the next European elections, Copé for the first time took a clear-cut position on the issue, saying that he would support him as a candidate.
“I have given my support to his candidacy in the EPP,” he said. According to the Lisbon Treaty, the result of the European elections is taken into account in the selection process for the Commission president. The 28 European leaders, however, have the final say on their nomination.
Copé's announcement came as a surprise to many, as he had been known to consider Barnier "too federalist" to lead the EPP's EU election campaign.
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However this support remains theoretical until Barnier has been officially declared a candidate in a French constituency. It is also unclear where he would run from, either in Paris as he did at the last elections or in his native region of Rhône-Alpes.
But the UMP is not making any progress so far on the elaboration of lists for the European elections. The president said that constituency candidates had been designated. There are rumours about the names of former ministers Nadine Morano, Michèle Alliot-Marie and Bruno Le Maire, but no consensus has been reached yet.
'Europe' meetings in the UMP
Candidates, outgoing and future, will be auditioned by an ad-hoc commission in charge party nominations by 21 January. The commission is composed of Copé, his former rival for the party leadership and former prime minister to Nicolas Sarkozy, François Fillon, two other former prime ministers, and two outgoing MEPs.
The commission will hear MEP Rachida Dati over a possible conflict of interest between her activities in the European Parliament and her work as a lawyer for the gas company GDF. A French centre-right MEP was quoted as saying that “it is not a problem in itself unless as an MEP you are interested in gas issues, which was the case".
France's Europe Committee met on 8 January in the UMP headquarters to work on the EPP’s 2014-2020 project and table amendments that will be presented to the party congress in March.
Henri Guaino, a former advisor to Sarkozy, Pierre Lellouche, a known pro-American, and Alain Lamassoure, one of the longest serving French MEPs, participated in the meeting, as well as representatives of Michel Barnier and EPP President Joseph Daul.
The French centre-right party also plans to produce its own document fixing the European political priorities. The main topics will be energy, migration, Schengen, competitiveness and agriculture.
The Europe Committee is paradoxically working in parallel with the nominations commission on the election candidates.
UMP members are sceptical about the method though.
“We need to go back to political issues, and the candidates need to answer to the political priorities that will be chosen for the next legislature,” an outgoing member of the party said, worried about France’s and the French right’s loss of influence at European level.
“If the Barnier plan fails we will no longer have a commissioner. And if we don’t have Joseph Daul at the head of the EPP group, the influence of the French right will be truly minimal in the European institutions. We need to choose candidates that are able to move the lines and guarantee the implementation of our political line,” another UMP affiliate said.