French conservatives in turmoil as far right gains

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French far-right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen arrives for a meeting at their headquarters in Nanterre, west of Paris, Tuesday, May 27, 2014. The anti-EU, anti-immigration National Front party shook France's political landscape by coming out on top in France's voting for European Parliament elections, beating the mainstream conservatives and the governing Socialists. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)

PARIS (AP) — The leader of France's conservative party is resigning amid a scandal over the financing for former President Nicolas Sarkozy's losing 2012 presidential campaign, officials said Tuesday.

The turmoil comes just as the far-right National Front party emerged on top in French voting for the European Parliament, upending France's political landscape.

Sarkozy's UMP party held a tumultuous meeting Tuesday. Afterward, party members told French television that chief Jean-Francois Cope agreed to resign as of June 15. Three former prime ministers — Francois Fillon, Alain Juppe and Jean-Pierre Raffarin — will assure party leadership until a party congress in October, the members said.

The shakeup was prompted by French media reports saying that a company run by friends of Cope pocketed millions of euros for fictitious or overbilled campaign events during France's 2012 presidential race.

A company lawyer, Patrick Maisonneuve, said Monday the firm didn't pocket the money unfairly — but instead helped the UMP cover up more than 10 million euros in campaign expenses.

France has a 22 million-euro ($30 million) spending limit on presidential campaigns. Cope has said he was unaware of any wrongdoing.

The conservative party's troubles could complicate a potential comeback bid by Sarkozy in France's 2017 presidential election — and provide an opening for far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen to take an even more prominent national role.

"I want the French to know that Mr. Sarkozy has cheated," Le Pen told a news conference Tuesday. "I don't see how candidate Sarkozy can escape his moral responsibility."

Sarkozy hasn't commented publicly. An investigation is reportedly underway into the company, and UMP party's offices were searched Monday.

Meanwhile, a weakened President Francois Hollande faced his peers Tuesday at a Brussels summit on the EU's future, after France's National Front party, which wants to eradicate the EU and stop immigration, became France's most popular party.

Hollande was already unpopular before the vote that ended Sunday. Now the French government, a pillar of Europe's unity and economy, stands politically weakened before its neighbors and at a loss for easy solutions.

"Painful," was Hollande's word for the result.

The face of France this week has not been Hollande's but the smiling, blond visage of Le Pen, who has transformed the National Front from a pariah movement into a poll winner.

In a country where jobs are scarce and economic growth elusive, she tapped into a vein of deep disillusionment with European bureaucracy and the status quo, and has built up a broad following that includes fed-up leftists as well as a traditionalist, far-right core.

Hollande is gambling that boosting the economy will restore his standing and some of France's global heft. He pledged Monday to push through tens of billions of euros in tax cuts and spending cuts that he hopes will get companies hiring again and shrink France's debts.

He has time on his side: There are no presidential or parliamentary elections scheduled in France for another three years.

Le Pen, however, doesn't want to wait that long — she wants parliament to be dissolved and new elections held.

Her party wants to pull France out of the euro currency, fears Islamic culture will dominate French civilization if Muslim immigration isn't halted and opposes globalization as well as the EU as infringements on French sovereignty.

Economist Stephen Lewis at Monument Securities warned that France "has entered a socio-political crisis from which no escape is yet in view" and said that could have profound consequences for the 28-nation EU.

"The EU could not survive in anything like its present form if continued membership became a live political issue in France," Lewis said in a research note.


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