President Nicolas Sarkozy's 'elastic' political majority finally snapped at the weekend. His ruling conservative Right UMP party has now lost its the support of its centre-Right current, known as Centrists, with the departures from government of Radical Party leader Jean-Louis Borloo and his followers Valérie Létard and Marc-Philippe Daubresse, and that of Hervé Morin, leader of the New Centre party.
Until Sunday, Morin had served more than three years as defence minister, beginning in Sarkozy's first government formed in May 2007. "My conviction is that there needs to be an independent, Centrist path present at major elections," he said at a press conference called at his ministry. "Since April 2010, the head of state is in disagreement with this approach and so, for my part, I could no longer stay in government."
"I had been expecting a unifying gesture in the make-up of this new government [ ...] just as France is crossing through a major crisis. I saw the formation of a UMP electoral campaign team [... ] close to the RPR. I regret that," added Morin.
The reshuffle has exposed a rift within the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement), which was established in 2002 as a broad, one-party umbrella coalition of most conservative and centre-right parties. These were principally the Gaullist RPR, the main force of the conservative Right, then led by former president Jacques Chirac, and the UDF, a centre-right party founded by former president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.
The 'Centrist' parties in France, akin to those described as 'liberal democrats' in other countries, are currently principally made up of Borloo's Parti radical, Morin's Nouveau centre party, and the non-UMP MoDem, led by François Bayrou, former head of the UDF. The three have been unable to agree to any common platform, and have traditionally been weak and separate partners to the huge power block formed by the former RPR school.
"This is a classic situation for the Centrists," commented Brice Teinturier, a director of opinion polling company Ipsos. "How do you establish your existence when you are an auxiliary force? From the moment that Hervé Morin expressed his will to become a [presidential] candidate he could pack his bags at the Ministry of Defence."
Jean-Louis Borloo, who has been a government minister over a period of eight years, beginning under the presidency of Jacques Chirac, is more firmly anchored than Morin in the ruling UMP conservative Right parliamentary majority. He was more measured in departure comments, although there was a scathing message to read between the lines. "I have chosen not to be a part of the next governmental team," he said Sunday, before the list of new ministers were announced. "I prefer, indeed, to have back my freedom of speech and of proposals, in the service of my values [... ] at the top of which I place social cohesion."
That last phrase was aimed at French public opinion in the context of recent months of strikes and demonstrations over the pension reforms. Marc-Philippe Daubresse, until Sunday Minister for the Young and Active Solidarity, announced he was leaving "in solidarity" with Borloo's position. "The question was whether [government] policy should be modified towards more social cohesion," said Daubresse. "That was what we asked for and it should have been manifested in [policy] orientations and the positioning of Centrists in government." He did however nuance his position by adding: "We are leaving the government, not the [parliamentary] majority."