The result in France in the first round of the Les Républicains party’s primary elections marks the political death of one of the big beasts of French politics. Nicolas Sarkozy, widely known as ‘Sarko’, has been a volcanic presence on the public stage since he became Jacques Chirac’s minister of the interior in May 2002.
Within two years he had become president of the right-wing UMP (forerunner of Les Républicains), defeating the favoured candidate of President Chirac, and from there it was but a short step to winning the presidency of France itself. He was defeated by François Hollande in 2012 after a five-year term during which he signally failed to implement ‘la rupture’ — the programme of radical economic and social reform on which he had been elected.
Sarkozy’s political career has been marked by public insults and private feuds, most of which he has won. But his campaign for this year’s nomination started to unravel as he tried to bridge the gap between the moderate right and supporters of the Front National. At one crowded meeting, intending to emphasise the importance of ‘the French national identity’ he heard himself referring to ‘Our ancestors, the Gauls’ (‘Nos ancêtres les Gaulois’). This picturesque image, intended to exclude immigrants of Arabic descent, led to widespread ridicule from all sides, coming as it did from a man who has always been proud of his mixed Hungarian and Greek-Jewish heritage. Sarkozy’s disappointed supporters tend to be fanatically loyal — but most voters will be pleased to hear that (for the second time) he has promised to retire from politics.
It was Sarko’s great rival Alain Juppé, the one-time prime minister and current mayor of Bordeaux, who foretold his fate in a quiet aside last September when Mr Juppé was questioned about his single brush with the law. (In 2002 he was given a suspended prison sentence of 18 months for playing a part in the illegal funding of some of President Chirac’s numerous shady arrangements, a transgression that did not prevent him from being re-elected as mayor of Bordeaux two years later.) Mr Juppé murmured in reply, ‘When it comes to a criminal record, it is better to have a past than a future.’ And it is true that Nicolas Sarkozy exits from the public arena pursued by a mob of lawyers and prosecutors anxious to talk to him about matters ranging from the bribery of a Court of Appeal judge to taking wodges of cash off the late President Gaddafi of Libya. With his departure, the political landscape suddenly seems a quieter and less colourful place.
Another reason why last Sunday’s result is significant is that yet again the opinion polls have crashed. French pollsters are very proud of their ‘scientific’ methods, which in this case led everyone to believe that this primary election was a punch-up between Sarkozy and Alain Juppé. Instead it was another former prime minister, François Fillon, who came top of the poll with 44 per cent of the votes.
Only three weeks ago, the same pollsters put Mr Fillon fourth in a field of seven, with 6 per cent. His impressive performance in a series of televised debates apparently turned the campaign in his favour, but the final polls still gave Fillon less than half of the votes he eventually won. He is now regarded as a firm favourite for next Sunday’s deciding vote, and therefore, again according to the pollsters, may very well win the next presidential elections in the spring. His age (he is 62) is thought to be a point in his favour. If Alain Juppé were to be elected as president next year he would be 76 at the end of a five-year term — though that is hardly an impediment in a country that has traditionally seen its politics dominated by old men.
But there is another reason to wonder whether Mr Fillon’s very large lead in the first round will carry him to victory. These particular primary elections assemble a completely unpredictable electorate. They are ‘open’ primaries, which means that you do not have to be a registered party member to vote. You merely have to register and pay €2. You do not even have to be of voting age — provided that you will be old enough to vote next April.
It is already clear that a number of left-wing voters registered with Les Républicains in order to defeat the widely unpopular Sarkozy. But it may be that some Socialist party voters registered to elect Mr Sarkozy, calculating that this would give their own party a slightly better chance next year. Similarly, Front National supporters are known to have registered in order to defeat ‘Sarko’, since he could have split the vote going to Marine Le Pen, who will now in theory have a larger ‘reservoir’ of supporters available.
All these voters will now be making similar calculations as to what tactics they should adopt in the second round to exploit the much less important differences between Juppé and Fillon. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising if the pollsters are reduced to what one Spectator reader has memorably described as the condition of astrologers in the court of a Renaissance king.
The French electorate is, by comparison with some others, well-educated and notably cynical. And so far it seems to have run rings around the Républicains’ party managers who — much influenced by the then party president Nicolas Sarkozy — carefully devised the rules of this election. When those rules were first published over a year ago, they drew howls of protest from both Mr Juppé and Mr Fillon, the two candidates who have now triumphed over all comers. Why opinion pollsters should suppose that such wily voters are necessarily going to announce their intentions to a mere pollster remains a mystery.
However, Front National tactical voters will have a problem next Sunday. Both Juppé and Fillon are reasonable and thoughtful professionals. Neither is likely to court the nationalist, anti-European Union vote with demagoguery. Until now Juppé has been seen as the only candidate who could beat Marine Le Pen in the first round, so on that basis they might decide to vote for Mr Fillon — a ‘nation state-er’ who has called for root and branch reform of the European Commission and who wants the strongest controls on immigration. Of course these complex calculations leave little room for ‘the Trump effect’ in deciding next year’s result. Whereas Marine Le Pen has been greatly encouraged by the populist surge in the United States, the French electorate is not normally influenced by events across the Atlantic. Donald Trump has no champions in France — even those encouraged by his success routinely describe his performance in the US Republican primary as uncouth, and 75 per cent of the French electorate (according to, yes, another opinion poll) ‘dislike’ him. Trump is sometimes described as ‘the modern Jean-Marie Le Pen’ by voters who loathed Marine Le Pen’s sulphurous father but might well vote for her.
This family distinction is made more and more frequently and Madame Le Pen is clearly making steady ground in sanitising her party in the public eye. But although she can count on a hard core of traditional supporters — nationalists and often racists — what really seems to be driving her slow ascent apart from immigration is unemployment. The latest figures show that it is running at 10 per cent, and rising. The latest UK figure is 4.8 per cent. When François Hollande came to power in May 2012, vowing to reduce unemployment, it was 9.3 per cent — and under five years of Socialist party government it has never been as low since. Little wonder that many voters move straight from the Socialists to the Front National without calling in at the centre or moderate right on the way.
Marine Le Pen has another arrow in her quiver, which is the way in which she has managed to switch the immigration debate away from the sensitive matter of desperate individuals to one of her favourite themes, the meaning and importance of ‘national identity’, or ‘identité’ as it is termed. France, she argues, exists as a bond between its people. And the people are identified and united by a love of their country, its language and its culture. The origins of these individual citizens are not in question. In a recent speech she set out her programme and declared that the elections of 2017 will decide whether or not France, ‘its sovereignty, identity, values and prosperity, amount to a country that we still recognise or one that has become foreign to us’.
The dog-whistle issues that she is raising with this declaration include immigration, the planned development of the European Union, the rules for acquiring French nationality, the defence of ‘laïcité’ (a secular society) and the imposition of integration in preference to multiculturalism. Alain Juppé has already rejected this debate, saying that the only French identity that interests him is ‘a happy identity’.
François Fillon seems to be more prepared to accept some of Marine Le Pen’s priorities. His suggestion that the primary-school history syllabus should be re-written as ‘a national story’ is an emphasis on the republican values that are traditionally shared by the left. And he has the distinction, to date, of being one of those senior politicians who has not been accused of any financial impropriety. If he wins on Sunday, the moderate right will be fighting the presidential election on ground cut from beneath Marine Le Pen’s feet.