A year has passed since Nicolas Sarkozy announced his return to frontline politics, and the political landscape in France is still recovering from the shock. His rivals for the leadership of the French right have watched while their cordially disliked ex-leader consistently outmanoeuvred them. They had made the mistake of believing in the sincerity of Sarko’s farewell speech in May 2012 when, following his defeat in the presidential election by François Hollande, he said: ‘From now on I will seek to serve my country in other spheres.’
Delighted by his departure, his colleagues seized the opportunity to reform the UMP, a coalition of the Gaullist and the anti-Gaullist right devised to ensure that Jean-Marie Le Pen, then leader of the Front National, never came to power. Two ex-prime ministers, Alain Juppé and François Fillon, rewrote the party’s constitution and instituted an American-style primary election to be held in November 2016, six months before the end of President Hollande’s term. It was hoped that this would be a means of reconnecting the leadership with its grass roots and would end the chronic cronyism and corruption of the past. It was agreed that there should be an election for a new UMP president, who would organise the primary but could not be a candidate in it.
All these good intentions came to nothing with the return of Sarkozy, trailing his involvement in a total of six criminal investigations, and ignoring the fact that 66 per cent of the electorate hoped that he would not make a comeback. During his five years in office he had conspicuously failed to implement his election programme — the limitation of trade-union power and the modernisation of the national economy. Despite all this, Sarko was ready for more. First he managed to get himself elected as UMP president, which enabled him to cancel the regulation that the party president could not stand as a candidate in the national elections. Then he renamed the party; it is now called ‘Les Républicains’, a slick move which has let him adopt a notably proprietorial air at party rallies.
The first test for the new party will be the regional elections due in December, when the question of immigration is likely to dominate the campaign. The only political group in France with a consistent line on the subject is of course the Front National. This week its president, Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie, reacted angrily to the news that Brussels was suggesting an allocation of 24,000 mainly Syrian refugees for France. In a speech in Marseilles, one of her party’s strongholds, she described immigrants as ‘a burden’ who were ‘stimulating the growth of Islamic fundamentalism’ in France. She accused Angela Merkel of being largely responsible for the current crisis, alleging that the German chancellor’s welcoming reaction was deliberately inciting more immigrants to travel to Europe. ‘No doubt she hopes to cure Germany’s stagnant population growth by continuing to use massive immigration as a source of slave labour,’ added Le Pen.
Asked about the photograph of the drowned body of a three-year-old Kurdish boy, a Front National spokesman remained unmoved. He said that it was an attempt to make the French feel guilty and added that he could not see ‘how the imposition of quotas would have prevented this drowning’. In December, Marine Le Pen’s candidates will campaign to repeal the Schengen agreement on border controls within the EU, cancel the traditional right to citizenship of all those born on French soil, cancel free health cover for illegal immigrants, and limit the right to political asylum by confining it to ‘victims of political persecution’ and excluding ‘victims of war’.
Marine Le Pen’s views, however brutally expressed, cannot be brushed aside as extreme. The majority of French opinion is hostile to the mass admission of refugees, and she is currently the favourite to win the first round of the 2017 presidential elections. Having at last expelled her 87-year-old father from the party on the grounds of his anti-Semitism, she has successfully formed several electoral pacts with Républicain candidates in the region of Provence and Côte d’Azur, and she has been building bridges with right-wing Catholic voters. The Bishop of Toulon has approved this initiative, describing Marine Le Pen’s Front National as ‘just another political party’.
The question of how to deal with the Front National has been a long-standing source of division among the Républicains. The argument is between those who believe that the best way of diminishing Front National votes is to cherry-pick its policies, and those who prefer to boycott the extreme right and attract votes from the centre. The leaders of the Républicains are careful to avoid Marine Le Pen’s coarse language, but in some cases their policies on immigration are not that different. One prominent Républicain, the former minister of agriculture Bruno Le Maire, has suggested that all foreigners whose papers are stamped with an ‘S’ (meaning ‘under surveillance for terrorist associations’) should be expelled — a step that would entail the instant removal of more than 5,000 people.
Sarkozy, who has always favoured chasing the hard-right vote, also wants to take France out of the current Schengen agreement. In addition he has demanded the ‘militarisation of Europe’s external frontiers’, and has urged the immediate and permanent closure of all mosques used by fundamentalist preachers. ‘Immigrants have to adapt to France, and not vice-versa’ is his version of the multicultural society. He has further rejected the idea of European immigration quotas and agrees that they are making the problem worse by attracting more immigrants.
Meanwhile the veteran Gaullist mayor of Bordeaux, Alain Juppé, who intends to attract centre-right voters, has excluded any electoral pact with the Front National, insisting that he would rather that Socialist party candidates were elected where that is the only alternative. For Mr Juppé, the Front National will be the ‘principal opponent’ of his party in 2017, and everything must be done to prevent Marine Le Pen from ‘assuming national political responsibilities’. None the less, on the question of immigration he too takes a firm line. He rejects the idea of European quotas and he has said that ‘Europe cannot shelter all the suffering in the world. We have to strengthen our border controls’.
Although he is handicapped by a rather cold and formal personality, Juppé remains the most dangerous opponent of the hyperactive Sarkozy. When he is asked if he is not rather old to be elected as president in 2017 (he will be 71, 20 years older than Sarko), he points out that he is only two years older than Hillary Clinton, and 19 years younger than the president of Tunisia.
The mayor of Bordeaux is openly suspicious about whether Sarkozy intends to conduct a fair primary election, and has said that if he suspects that the president of the Républicains has rigged the result, he will not hesitate to run as an independent. Which, if it happens, would further split the right-wing vote — and delight Marine Le Pen.