Nicolas Sarkozy in Lambersart (Nord), September 25th (photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP)
Arthur Goldhammer had a blog post last Thursday on the coming bataille royale between Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé—over who will be the UMP’s presidential candidate in 2017—and that provoked a lively exchange in the comments thread, with contributions by myself and regular readers of both Art’s and my blog (for the record, I differ with Mitch Guthman, who believes Marine Le Pen will win in ’17—Mitch and I have already been around the track on this—, and am in entire agreement with Massilian). Art writes that his French friends assume that the left has no chance whatever in ’17, will be eliminated in the first round and with Marine Le Pen advancing to the second, but that as she cannot possibly win, the next Président de la République will logically be the candidate of the UMP (or whatever the UMP renames itself, if Sarkozy gets his way on this), thereby turning the UMP primary—that will be held sometime in 2016—into the veritable presidential election. This is indeed the assumption of the majority in this country who at all follow politics, myself included. France Inter’s Thomas Legrand, whose daily political editorials are as incisive a commentary on French politics as one will get, said so himself on Thursday morning. If there are any Socialists out there who really truly believe that François Hollande—or a PS replacement candidate, should Hollande throw in the towel (a hypothesis not to be excluded)—has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning in ’17, I’d like to know their names. PS Pollyannas, should they exist, will certainly not have been comforted by the headline in Le Monde dated Saturday: “Croissance, chômage, déficits: la France n’a pas encore touché le fond”… i.e. the economic situation in this lovely country has not yet hit bottom, i.e. we ain’t seen nothin yet… If a governing party in an advanced democracy has ever been reelected in such a context, I am not aware of it.
So the next President of the Republic will most certainly issue from the UMP. And as Sarkozy has confirmed more than once over the past ten days, the UMP’s presidential candidate will be designated in a primary open to all voters, not just card-carrying UMP members (and with eventual candidates not being limited to the UMP). One may thereby presume that the primary will be organized in the same manner as was the one held by the PS in October 2011: open to all registered voters who sign a statement at the polling station pledging that they adhere to the values of the right and center—the wording of this will be interesting (the charter signed by voters participating in the 2011 PS primary is here)—and who contribute a minimum of €1 (for my posts on the 2011 primary, see here and here). The participation in this one is sure to be significant, no doubt higher than the 2.8 million who voted in the PS primary. As well over 90% of participating voters of the right and center will not be UMP members, the outcome of the November 29th vote for party president—which Sarkozy looks sure to win haut la main—will provide no indication whatever as to what will happen in 2016.
As I’ve been saying since the question was first broached in 2012, I do not believe for a minute that Sarkozy will succeed in his comeback. He’s the same old Sarko: febrile, frenetic, feverishly pulling demagogic, off-the-wall, half-baked, and/or unserious proposals out of a hat one after the other, and with his trademark croque-mort look (black suit/black tie), bullying journalists when questioned ever so politely, and trash talking and denigrating en off just about everyone outside his inner circle of sycophants (and even those inside that circle). And then there’s his posture of victimization and Berlusconian attacks on the judicial system and its magistrates, which speaks volumes as to the low regard in which he holds the institutions of the republic and French democracy. He’s the same dog doing the same tricks, that we saw countless times during his calamitous five years in the Elysée (for my treatise on Sarkozy, posted on the eve of the presidential 2nd round in 2012, go here). Sarkozy’s public appearances since his formal return to the political arena two weeks ago—the Sep. 21st France 2 interview sur le plateau (for which he was scandalously given 45 minutes of free air time on a chaîne de service public and for which all television set owners pay the redevence) and the subsequent rallies in Lambersart and Saint-Julien-les-Villas—have demonstrated yet again that he is the worst person in the first tier of the French political class (which does not include Marine Le Pen, at least not yet). And that the UMP base, with its pathetic, Bonapartist culte du chef, has been so desperately awaiting his comeback is yet another demonstration of the deliquescence of French politics more generally (the left is hardly in better shape than the right but that’s another matter). Triste France.
Re Sarkozy’s demagogic and/or cockamamie proposals of the past two weeks—tossed out like so many bones to the increasingly hard right UMP base—, I will cite just two. The first: Replacing “lifetime employment” for fonctionnaires with five-year contracts (with the police and school teachers exempted, so Sarko says). One wonders if Sarkozy has given any thought to this nutty idea or just cooked it up as he was going along (or maybe heard about some such practice elsewhere while on one of his $100K speaking gigs). Now it is the case that short-term contracts (usually five years) have become the norm in a number of international organizations, but these mainly concern young, highly educated professionals, who know they will move on to lucrative employment—including in the upper civil services of their home countries—once the contracts with the prestigious organizations (World Bank, OECD, etc) are up and the young professionals’ international epistemic networks have been constituted. Such is, however, not likely to obtain for most fonctionnaires of the French state outside the grands corps. And, BTW, will the latter also be concerned by Sarkozy’s measure? Will members of the Conseil d’Etat, Cour des Comptes, Corps Préfectoral etc all be put on five-year contracts? And will the contracts be one shot or renewable? If the former, the French civil service will be gutted, as few outside the (soon to be ex-)grand corps who have any options on the job market—who are not desperate for a job right now, immediately—will sign such a fixed term contract. One end result will be a mass outsourcing of the missions of the state, including its regalian ones, to the private sector, which is one of the most pernicious developments in advanced democracies over the past two decades (on the privatization of the state, see here and here). Another result—and particularly if the contracts are renewable—will be a patronage/spoils system à la française and on a scale larger than anything witnessed in Chicago at the height of the Daley père machine era. In all likelihood, though, such a scheme, which is sure to generate considerable opposition (an understatement), will not see the light of the day in the ghastly event that Sarkozy returns to power in ’17, as once back in the Elysée—and confronted with an unfavorable rapport de force on the question—he’ll forget about it.
A second demagogic proposal: Generalizing the recourse to the referendum and for a whole range of policy issues, including one that would constitutionally proscribe public spending that exceeds 50% of GDP (recalling proposals by the American right for a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, which were so ridiculous and disconnected from reality that even the proponents of this loopy idea seem to have dropped it). The French Bonapartist right—incarnated in modern times by the Gaullists and their successors—has always been plebiscitarian but Sarkozy’s proposal, if acted upon, would take this to a whole new level, with one result being a dangerous undermining of the institutions of representative democracy and a reinforcement of the already outsized power of the President of the Republic hors cohabitation, as he would determine when and over what issues the referendum would be organized, either directly or via his handpicked prime minister (as for the constitutional provision of the initiative partagée, this is too cumbersome to work, and particularly in the time frame Sarkozy has in mind). Moreover, Sarkozy is proposing that referenda on policy be held the same day as the first round of the legislative elections, which, in the current calendar, happens less than five weeks after the newly (re)elected President of the Republic takes office. Not only is this proposal thoroughly preposterous but is also constitutionally impossible—if I understand the Fifth Republic constitution’s Article 11 correctly—, as the National Assembly would not be in session when the President or his newly appointed government proposed the referenda, which the Assembly would have to be in order to debate the question as Article 11 mandates. But constitutionally possible or not, Sarkozy will surely not follow through on his harebrained proposal if he finds himself in a position to make it. Sarko may be a lot of things but he’s not stupid, and he knows that Presidents of the Republic must be extremely careful with the instrument of the referendum, lest it blow up in their faces by irate voters (and many voters will be extremely irate in the unthinkable event that Sarkozy is elected in ’17).
It looks like Sarkozy, whose poll numbers are in the black only with UMP voters, has not provoked a bandwagon effect—au contraire—, as the latest IFOP-JDD poll shows him dropping seven points with UMP sympathizers over the ten days following his tonitruant return to the political arena and six points with voters overall. Citizens are clearly perceiving that the new Sarko is the same as the old Sarko. The latest popularity polls and baromètres will be published in the coming two weeks and are not likely to bear good news for the ex-Président de la République. À propos, one shudders to imagine what posture he’s concocting on the immigration and nationality issue. Given the general mood of his base on this, it will likely not differ significantly from the neo-frontiste turn of the latter years of his presidential term. Patrick Buisson without Buisson. The mere prospect of a second round square-off between Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen—the two most polarizing figures in French politics and both with negative poll numbers far higher than their positive ones—will be so appalling to so many voters, including on the center and moderate right, that voters of the left may well participate in the UMP primary and en masse to prevent the nightmarish Sarkozy-Le Pen 2nd round scenario from coming to pass.
And then there are the affairs. Not even Chirac in the 1990s was dragging as many casseroles as Sarkozy is today. And as today’s Le Monde headlines, Sarkozy is now directly threatened in the Bygmalion affair, i.e. the investigating magistrates are closing in on him. If he is mis en examen in this—and there could well be other indictments down the road (Karachi, Qadhafi-Takieddine…)—and the procedure does not result in a non-lieu before it goes to trial, it’s hard to imagine Sarkozy even being able to head the UMP, let alone run in the 2016 primary. Bygmalion is a big deal and with practically no one in the UMP taking seriously Sarkozy’s denials that he was unaware of what was going on during the campaign (and while it is possible that Sarkozy told his lieutenants to do what they had to do to raise and spend money, and to cover his own tracks on it, he is still legally responsible in the end). So je persiste et je signe: for all the reasons mentioned above, Sarkozy will not go the distance to 2017.
That leaves Alain Juppé as the only credible UMP candidate. As one is aware—and which I mentioned last month—he is the most popular politician in the country at the present time and only one of three whose overall poll numbers are more positive than negative. Juppé’s comeback with public opinion is striking. He has indeed quashed the image of arrogance and antipathie earned during his short-lived term at the Matignon (1995-97), which ended in failure with the right’s stunning defeat in the élections anticipées that brought the Gauche plurielle to power. One remembers how respected Juppé was when Chirac appointed him PM—even moderate left voters were well-disposed and wished him well—and how he blew it during the grèves of Nov.-Dec. 1995. Now I happened to think that the plan Juppé that unleashed the grèves was pretty good—and other forward-thinking persons on the left thought likewise—but his arrogant méthode was unacceptable, causing the capital of sympathy he had entered office with to all but vanish. He was the imperious énarque-normalien, la meilleur de la classe, who viewed most others, at minimum, as less intelligent than he, when not downright stupid (and for the anecdote, two people I knew back in those days who dealt with Juppé confirmed his froideur). But his traversée du désert following the humiliating repudiation of 1997—and then with his judicial conviction in 2004 as Chirac’s fall guy in the Mairie de Paris corruption trials—manifestly humbled him. And the politique de proximité he has practiced during his 17 years as mayor of Bordeaux—where he is hugely appreciated—has humanized him. I was not a fan of his during his period as PM but changed my view in precisely October 1999, when a cercle de réflexion that Juppé created, called France Moderne, published a 60-page report on immigration in France and the reality of discrimination, which I read at the time and found excellent. The report—which was unsigned but probably written, in part or in whole, by Juppé himself—repudiated the entire approach, indeed world-view, of the right toward the immigration issue at that time. It was a remarkable document indeed (as it seems to have disappeared from the web—I have a hard copy somewhere—I have pasted in the comments section Le Monde’s article from the time announcing the report’s publication). After reading it, I started to look at Juppé more favorably. In fairness, it should be said that Sarkozy also had interesting things to say on the immigration issue in the early ’00s, but, being Sarkozy, he radically altered his discourse when political expedience so dictated. Juppé has not changed his tune on the issue.
When it comes to mastery of policy, Juppé is second to none in the political class (he’s not an Inspecteur de Finance for nothing), and his positions are fairly consistent. He does not, unlike his principal UMP rival of the moment, change his positions 180° on a dime or lurch wildly from one thing to another. He is firmly anchored on the neo-Gaullist moderate right. Juppé is solid and serious. And he is an homme d’Etat and a republican, which no one would deny. Nicolas Sarkozy is not an homme d’Etat and it is not certain that he is a republican. And one is not going to get demagoguery from Juppé or outlandish proposals that he would not be able to implement. E.g. on the economy, Juppé advocates abolishing the ISF, gutting the RTT, and raising the retirement age to 65; these are clearly positions of the right but mainstream and not totally unreasonable. Last Thursday night Juppé was the guest on France 2’s Des Paroles et des Actes, where he was grilled for 2½ hours by a succession of journalists, politicos, and citizens (one of the politicos being the 24-year-old FN deputy Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who was surprisingly impressive on form: articulate and far less antipathique than her aunt and certainly grandfather). What to say, Juppé was Juppé. He was good, even though I won’t say I agreed with him down the line (I remain well to his left). He drew a big TV audience—to be expected given the current political context—and the instant poll at the end of the program showed a leap in his favorable numbers. And importantly, he showed himself to be the anti-Sarkozy and in almost every respect.
As for the other announced candidates for the UMP presidential primary, François Fillon and Xavier Bertrand, they will strive to be heard. Fillon was looking good and solid after the 2012 elections but did damage to his image in the guerre à outrance with Jean-François Copé for the presidency of the UMP. And politically speaking, his moderate, social Gaullist image was seriously undermined when in 2012, out of the blue, he spoke of readopting the provisions of the 1993 Loi Pasqua (abrogated by the left in 1998) in regard to French nationality acquisition. Fillon’s erstwhile social Gaullism is now definitely in the past, with his très libéral discourse on the economy (calling for, entre autres, the elimination of no less than 600,000 posts in the fonction publique). As for Bertrand, il fait de la figuration, au moins pour le moment. Both are likely waiting/hoping for Sarkozy to drown in his affaires and be forced out of the race, after which they will present themselves as the more conservative alternative to Juppé (and as Juppé is not too appreciated on the UMP hard right—where he’s seen as a sort of RINO à la française—, the political space for them will be there). In any case, the choice on the French right for ’17 could not be more clear, that’s for sure.
Marion Maréchal-Le Pen & Alain Juppé, France 2/Des Paroles et des Actes, October 2nd