Sister Republics, Brother Authoritarians
Pal Sarkozy had always dreamed that one day his son, Nicolas, would become president. Not president of France, the country over which the younger Sarkozy presided from 2007-2012 and hopes to lead again. Instead it was France’s sister republic on the other side of the Atlantic.
“I’d have been really proud,” Sarkozy père declared soon after his son’s election in 2007, “if one of my sons had been president of the United States.”
We will probably never know if this wish, like a splinter, lodged itself deep in the psyche of Sarkozy fils. (For the record, Pal Sarkozy believes his son’s psyche was already damaged: “To become a politician, you need to have complexes. Nicolas has several.”) But if the nature of Sarkozy’s re-election campaign is any indication, it seems clear that, like his father, he has the American presidency on his mind.
Or, more precisely, a presidency à la Donald Trump.
Les Républicains (LR) is entering the home stretch of its presidential primary, which will climax on Nov. 20. The party is the creation of Nicolas Sarkozy, who as president of the neo-gaullist Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, prodded the rank-and-file in 2015 to, well, Americanize their party’s name. Not only is the name new, but so too is the primary: For the first time, it will be open to all registered voters who fork over 2 euros and promise to “uphold the republican values of the center and right.” Of the seven candidates competing in the primary, five are walk-ons. The lone woman, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, has no more chance of winning than did the one woman, Carly Fiorina, in the other Republican primary -- though Kosciusko-Morizet, a former environment minister, is far more qualified. The other candidates range from former prime ministers under Sarkozy (Francois Fillon) to former enablers for Sarkozy (Jean-François Copé).
The primary, in effect, will come down to two men: Sarkozy and Alain Juppé. The pair have wrestled for the party’s leadership ever since the political and physical decline of former president Jacques Chirac in the early 2000s. Though they served together in conservative governments -- toward the end of Sarkozy’s presidency, Juppé was both defense minister and foreign minister -- they gave the unflagging impression of two escaped convicts who shared little more than the handcuffs that chained them together.
In the hothouse of the primary campaign, the differences in their personalities and policies have, perhaps inevitably, grown wider. At the age of 71, Juppé finds himself in the role of the statesman, if not the wise man of the party. This marks a dramatic change in fortune and perhaps character. Juppé long enjoyed a reputation for a sharp mind and sharper elbows, for intellectual brilliance and chronic arrogance. It is a reputation largely deserved. In 2004, he was convicted of violating party finance laws and had to quit public office. Following a short passage through the political desert, Juppé redeemed himself as the mayor of Bordeaux. Practical and pragmatic, Monsieur le maire drew support not just from conservatives and centrists, but from many on the left as well. In his bid to become the LR’s candidate for president, he has doubled down on his newfound image as an ideological moderate and skilled manager. Tellingly, “l’identité heureuse” or the happy identity, is the banner for Juppé’s campaign -- the belief that the country’s ethnic diversity, along with shared republican values, make for France’s greatness. To this end, Juppé has suggested that the state can “reasonably accommodate” certain demands of French Muslims, such as serving halal meals in school cafeterias.
To Sarkozy, accommodation is another word for capitulation. In his campaign book Tout Pour La France, he lambastes Juppé’s position: “There can be no ‘happy identity’ as long as we propose ‘reasonable accommodations’ in the interest of social peace."
A very French malaise
Indeed, it’s as if Sarkozy’s campaign slogan is l’identité malheureuse -- the title of a dystopian essay published in 2014 by the conservative intellectual Alain Finkielkraut, who argues that France’s identity is besieged by the forces of popular culture and unchecked immigration. Never too shy to play the populist card -- as interior minister during the suburban riots of 2005, Sarkozy vowed to “power hose the rabble” off the streets -- the former president is ratcheting up the ugly rhetoric.
Upon announcing his candidacy in late August, Sarkozy in effect declared that he and he alone can make France great again: “I will be the president who will re-establish the state’s authority over every centimeter of the country.” Like the Republican candidate on the other side of the Atlantic, Sarkozy went on to warn that he would be blunt: “To the politically correct [les bien-pensants], close your ears because you’ll be shocked.” Shocked because Sarkozy and his supporters are fed up with those who “demand that we excuse ourselves for being French and to be quiet.” Shocked because he and his supporters are taxed as “xenophobes though there is an immigration problem” and dismissed as “racist because there is a problem with radical Islam.” Shocked because, unlike the “laxist” Socialist government that takes “useless precautions,” he would be “pitiless” in the war against terrorism.
On the question of terrorism, Sarkozy is gliding to the right not just of Trump, but also of his rival on France’s far right, Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National. Earlier this month, he called for the “administrative retention” of all individuals on the terrorist watch list, known as the “S file.” In making the demand, Sarkozy avoided the starker language of his lieutentant, Laurent Wauquiez, who has called for the confinement of suspects in “internment camps.” While Juppé’s camp denounced the proposal as a “Guantanamo à la française,” Le Pen limited herself to the observation that such camps were “contrary to our Constitution.”
It was a canny move. As the leader and presidential candidate of the party that feeds off the electorate’s growing xenophobic and Islamophobic sentiments, Le Pen has no need to raise the rhetorical stakes. Instead, she can afford to appear as the calm voice of reason while the rest of the political class, she sighs, “gives the impression of losing its sangfroid.” The same cannot be said of Sarkozy, who in his effort to attract the older, conservative, and white electorate drawn to Le Pen has become more Trumpian than Trump. Last week, he declared that climate change is not all that scientists crack it up to be. “I don’t really believe that humans have much to do with global warming. Perhaps we have had an impact, but I don’t believe it is a devastating one.” Sarkozy’s indifference to scientific evidence is, of course, shocking. More shocking, however, is his transparent obsession with the electoral calculus. After all, Sarkozy’s first major initiative as president in 2007 was to orchestrate an effort to develop clean and durable sources of energy in France.
For the moment, Sarkozy’s Trumpian tactics seem to be paying off. The significant lead enjoyed by Juppé earlier this summer has largely evaporated, with one recent poll now placing the two men neck and neck at 34 percent, with the remaining votes scattered among the other five candidates. As a consequence, Sarkozy continues to se trumpiser. After visiting earlier this week the so-called jungle at Calais -- the improvised camp where several thousand illegal immigrants have converged in their efforts to reach Great Britain -- Sarkozy vowed he would solve the problem within months of moving back into the Elysée. For good measure, he described France as “submerged” by illegal immigrants whose impact was tantamount to “flood damage.” Come November, our sister republics will both find out whether such language will give us brother authoritarians.