It’s formally called the “open primary of the right and the center,” which will select the single candidate of the parliamentary right for next spring’s presidential election. Six of the seven candidates are first-tier personalities from the party that nowadays calls itself Les Républicains, LR being the latest iteration of the neo-Gaullist movement—the rassemblement or union inspired by the great general having changed its name some ten times over the past six decades—and incorporating other historic currents of the French right and center (droite libérale, Christian Democracy). The is the first time the neo-Gaullist party—with the cult of the providential leader at the core of its culture—has ever gone about selecting its candidate via an open primary: open to any candidate who passes the ballot access threshold and in which any registered voter may participate. The organization of the primary is almost a carbon copy of the one the Parti Socialiste organized five years ago, which was inspired by the American experience and the first of its kind in France. I was initially dubious about the PS imitating the US model of selecting presidential candidates—of which I have never been a fan—but had to acknowledge its manifest success. As I wrote on October 11, 2011
The PS primaire à l’américaine is now the new French model for all eternity (it will certainly be adopted by the UMP in 2017, one may be assured of that).
If the major French political parties can be inspired by the American primary model, the two US parties—and particularly the GOP—would be well advised to adopt French ballot access rules. To qualify for the one tomorrow, LR candidates had to be sponsored by 250 elected officials in at least 30 of the 101 departments of metropolitan and overseas France—and with no more than one-tenth from any one department—20 being parliamentary deputies, and with signatures of 2,500 card-carrying party members spread out over 15 departmental party federations (and again, with no more than a tenth from any one federation). Imagine the outcome of this latest US election if Republican candidates had needed the formal endorsement of, say, 20 members of Congress, plus a certain number of governors and mayors, in order to contest primaries and caucuses… Alas.
As for registered voters who wish to participate in the primary, they have only to contribute €2 and sign a declaration that reads: “I share the republican values of the right and the center, and am committed to the alternation of power to insure the recovery of France.” C’est tout. Now who can be against the recovery of France? And the alternation of power between political parties, which is a cornerstone of any democracy worthy of the name: it is not explicitly stated that this should happen in 2017 and between which political parties power should alternate. As for the “republican values of the right and the center,” these are not precisely spelled out in any text, not to my knowledge at least, nor is it apparent how they differ from republican values of the left. In point of fact, there is a republican consensus in France that republican values are the common patrimony of all Frenchmen and women across the political spectrum: right, center, and left.
So voilà, there is no political, ideological, or moral impediment for any citizen who identifies with the left to cross over and strategically vote in the right’s primary—and which was precisely what was sought by Alain Juppé and some of the other candidates in forcing the wording of the declaration on Nicolas Sarkozy—LR party chief since 2014—who didn’t even want a primary to begin with. Sarkozy got rolled big time. As the winner of the primary will be the heavy favorite to win the presidential election—in view of the discredit of François Hollande and his Socialists—and after squaring off against Marine Le Pen in the 2nd round, the stakes in this contest are thus high, indeed exceptionally so. The specter of Sarkozy facing Le Pen next May 7th being too nightmarish to contemplate—and, personally speaking, after the Brexit vote and cataclysmic outcome of the US election, I don’t think I could handle another such result; not here in France—habitual PS voters will possibly turn out in consequential numbers tomorrow, to vote Juppé and for the sole purpose of blocking Sarkozy. And, pour l’info, I will be among them.
Sarkozyistes have been freaking out of late at this prospect—which they cluelessly did not see coming—and crying foul, but they have no cause whatever to do so. These are the rules of the game and that’s that. And looking outre-Atlantique: with the exception of the dozen or so closed primary states, there is nothing to prevent Democrats and Republicans from voting in the other’s primary; this sometimes happens and no big deal is made of it (its incidence is minimal mainly because D and R primaries usually happen on the same day). Moreover, as a citizen’s voting choices are a private matter, how can it be known outside of villages and small towns—where everybody knows everyone—if a given voter is on the left?
N.B. sarkozyistes have been silent on the prospect of FN voters participating in the primary to support their man—which probably won’t happen in significant numbers, as frontiste voters already have their champion in Marine LP—even though the extreme-right has never been considered by neo-Gaullists to be a constituent component of the family of right and center parties and movements.
Three prime time debates were held in the run-up to tomorrow’s vote, on Oct. 13th, Nov. 3rd, and Nov. 17th. I saw the first and last, missing the middle one. They were typical French debates: the candidates were all well-spoken and wonkish in their responses to the questions put to them. They all sounded like Hillary Clinton talking policy (form, not substance). And they were articulate and fast on their feet in a way one simply does not see in a debate among US Republicans, where there’s almost a premium on sounding stupid and not speaking in complex sentences (for candidates who are capable of this). This is France: if you sound like a dimwit on television, vous êtes mort, i.e, you’re toast. On most economic and social policy questions, the candidates are pretty much on the same page, differing only in degree, e.g. in how many hundreds of thousands of posts in the civil service they’re going to eliminate (the right has a fetish-like obsession with taking an axe to the number of state employees, ostensibly to save taxpayer euros, though which never saves a centime; I’ll come back to this at a later date). Or on what repressive measures will be taken in getting tough on crime (minimum mandatory sentencing, etc). Noteworthy is the hegemony of free market libéralisme among the heirs of neo-Gaullism, which was not the case during the era of Chirac’s RPR. If one is interested in the positions of the candidates on the issues, see Le Monde’s helpful guide.
The central issues for the right today—and on which one may situate the candidates along the political spectrum—are the “4 Is”: Immigration, Identity, Islam, and Insécurité (i.e. law-and-order and criminality, the kind associated with youthful males of post-colonial immigrant origin)—issues that unprincipled, vote-grubbing right-wing politicians find irresistible to demagogue. As for where the candidates generally stand and what their prospects are, here’s a quick rundown, proceeding from the most right wing to the closest to the center.
Jean-François Copé: He’s tied with the next two for the most reactionary. Copé, who’s an énarque and non-practicing Jew, was a more-or-less mainstream conservative until 2012, when, during his knock-down drag-out fight with François Fillon for the leadership of the UMP, he staked out a particularly reactionary position on the “4 Is,” and with his rhetoric and public pronouncements becoming almost indistinguishable from those of the Front National. He has also gone the full Bonaparte, promising that, if elected president of the republic, he will rule by decree (ordonnance) for a period upon taking office, enacting sweeping laws on fifteen major issues without parliamentary debate or vote (this is constitutionally possible). And he’s the most economically libéral of the candidates. Copé—who’s been one of the most unpopular politicians in France over the past four years—has had zero chance of winning from the outset and knows it. He’ll be lucky if he reaches 2% tomorrow. His main motivation in running is to settle scores with Sarkozy, whom he despises and loathes, Sarko having made him the fall guy in the Bygmalion Affair. If Sarko bites the dust, Copé will be happy. Mission accomplished.
Nicolas Sarkozy: Anyone who’s read my posts on French politics over the years knows what I think of him. I have said it countless times and will say it yet again: Nicolas Sarkozy is the worst person in the top-tier of French politics. He is despicable and loathsome in ways too numerous to mention in a short blog post, the main one, though, being the “4 Is,” which he has made the alpha and omega of his campaign. Some examples of Sarkozy’s demagogic posturing over the past three months: 1. His call for the banning of the Islamic headscarf from universities and workplaces, despite the manifest unconstitutionality of such measures and the certain rage and resistance they would engender. 2. Riding the wave of the late summer’s burkini hysteria, his demanding the banning of the offending swimsuit and by constitutional amendment if necessary, how such a fantastical amendment could be possibly be worded not being explicated and the European Convention of Human Rights be damned. 3. Calling for the automatic, indefinite administrative detention, and without judicial oversight, of all persons “fiché S,” i.e. put on a police watch list for possible links to terrorists but with the persons in question having committed no crime or been charged with anything. In short: Guantánamos à la française, in France, and for French citizens. 4. Suspending family reunification for immigrants legally resident in France, malgré the right to live with one’s family being a fundamental human one and contained in declarations and treaties to which France is a signatory, e.g. the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the aforementioned European Convention. 5. Demanding the end to alternative meals in school cafeterias, so that if, say, pork is all that’s on the menu and a pupil does not want to eat this, he or she has only to ask for a double order of French fries. Honnêtement, it takes a truly perverse, twisted mind to come up with something like this—as well as to thunderously cheer it from an audience. 6. Not so much demagogic as comically laughable: calling on primary schools to teach children, regardless of their actual origins, that their ancestors were the Gauls. Such would be akin to all American students—of all races, ethnicities, and creeds—being informed by mandate of the state that they are descended from the pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower. Sarkozy delights in this rhetoric, whipping LR base audiences into a frenzy in stigmatizing a part of the population and with his trademark trash-talking style. À propos, he’s fascinated with Trump. The similarities between the two men are indeed striking—though Trump has more money and higher poll numbers. The hugely unpopular Sarkozy, who is obsessed with avenging his 2012 defeat and determined to vanquish his LR rivals, has never led in a primary poll. He will likely finish second tomorrow. If he somehow wins the 2nd round, it will be an even greater upset than the Nov. 8th one outre-Atlantique.
Jean-Frédéric Poisson: I hadn’t heard of him until two months ago. And if I didn’t know about him, that means that the vast majority of even politically informed Frenchmen and women didn’t either. He’s a backbench deputy and leader of the Parti Chrétien-Démocrate, a microscopic conservative Catholic party associated with the LR—and that is not an hier to France’s century-old Christian Democratic movement—and was exclusively identified with the personality of its founder, Christine Boutin. Poisson is very conservative pretty much across the board, particularly on questions de société, and revealed some sulfurous ideas about “Zionists” and conspiracies last month, which almost got him expelled from the primary contest. “Un vrai réac,” as Nicolas Sarkozy apparently labelled him in private (Le Canard Enchaîné, 3 Nov. 2016), “encore pire hors caméra.” As his score will be in the very low single digits, no more need be said about him.
Bruno Le Maire: A normalien and énarque, he was Dominique de Villepin’s whiz kid right-hand man at the Quai d’Orsay and then Matignon during Chirac’s second term—and was the veritable author of DDV’s famous UNSC speech in Feb. 2003, when France stood up to the Bush administration over Iraq. At 47 years of age, Le Maire has cast himself as the candidate of youth and renouveau—in the first debate he decided to épater la bourgeoisie by not wearing a tie—though his discourse and positions are firmly in the conservative mainstream, with a libéral, rightward tilt, including on the “4 Is.” He’s one of those men who was middle-aged, or acted like it, by the time he was 30. He clearly has a political future—one can definitely see him as prime minister—but won’t be moving into the Élysée next May. He looked like he could be the troisième homme in primary race but that’s not too likely now, as he’s been fading in the polls. He’ll be lucky if he finishes above 10%.
François Fillon: Fillon looked like a loser for most of the campaign, treading water and going nowhere, with no hope of catching Sarkozy and Juppé. Already four years ago, in the wake of the bloodbath between the fillonistes and copéistes for control of the UMP, I pronounced him toast and for all time. But lo and behold, his poll numbers have been surging over the past couple of weeks and with him now in striking distance, even at parity, with Sarkozy for second place. If Fillon makes it to the 2nd round, it will be a stunning coup de théâtre foreseen by no pundit or politico. And if it happens at Sarkozy’s expense, it will be such sweet revenge for Fillon, who hates Sarkozy with a passion, Fillon having been mistreated and humiliated during his five years at Matignon under Sarko’s hyper-presidency. If this comes to pass and Fillon squares off against Juppé, he will have an excellent chance of winning, and ergo be the odds-on favorite next May. Whoda thunk it? Fillon is, in fact, totally credible as president of the republic. He has the stature. I personally think he presents himself well. His personality and style are reassuring. As for his politics, that’s another matter. He comes out of the old social Gaullist tradition, having been a protégé of the late Philippe Séguin, but, like Bruno Le Maire, has tacked libéral and rightward in recent years. I think some of his positions on the economy, plus the “4 Is,” are nuts. And then there’s his Russophilia and problematic rhetoric on Syria, which does not sit well chez moi. But as Fillon’s positioning is exactly there with the French median voter of the right, it is politically serving him well.
Alain Juppé: He’s been the favorite from day one and whom I have been asserting for the last two-plus years would vanquish Sarkozy, win the primary, and most likely succeed François Hollande at the Élysée. I still think this but if Juppé unexpectedly faces Fillon in the 2nd round, then all bets are off. Juppé is, it must be said, a mainstream conservative, though maybe a little less libéral than the other candidates. He was a chiraquien, which means he believes in the state, but has forged an image as a moderate, almost a centrist, via his positions on the “4 Is,” which are the most liberal and well-thought out on the right. Juppé simply refuses to demagogue these issues or flatter the hard-right LR base on them, which has led the latter to intensely distrust him (for LR militants, he’s a RINO à la française). If the 2nd round next May is Juppé vs. Marine Le Pen, there will be significant defections of LR voters to the latter, though with Juppé more than compensating with centrists—he has been formally endorsed by the centrist UDI plus François Bayrou and his MoDem—and center/moderate-left voters who appreciate him for the “4 Is” but also the fact that he manifestly has the stature of an homme d’État. In the Élysée he’ll be a French Angela Merkel, with a strong commitment to Europe, a proper wariness of Russia, a disinclination to deal in any way with Bashar al-Assad, and, most importantly, will be the most reassuring president this country could want to deal with the new occupant of the White House. But first Juppé has to get to the Élysée. La route n’est pas encore dégagée.
Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet: She’s the closest to the center of the seven candidates, with left-compatible positions on several issues, notably the environment and emphasizing resistance to the Front National and all that it represents. And though she’s made a few stupid or off-the-wall statements on the “4 Is,” she’s not bad on these overall. I’ve always liked NKM: she’s smart—as a polytechnicienne, she has to be—well-spoken, and gives a positive impression, at least in my book. But she won’t make it out of the mid single digits tomorrow. In fact, she was helped in extremis to qualify for the primaries—with LR élus signing for her—as the party correctly deemed that it would really not look good if it fielded an exclusively male slate of candidates.
The bottom line tomorrow will be turnout. If it’s on the low end, with less than 2 million voters schlepping to the polls—the number of bureaux de vote are fewer in number than for an election (e.g. mine is a 15 minute walk from chez moi, as opposed to the usual 5 minutes)—then that’s good news for Sarkozy. But if it exceeds 3 million, then Sarko is in big trouble. As the participation in the 2011 Socialist primary reached 2.8 million, it stands to reason that it will be markedly higher in this one, in view of the high interest it has generated (5 million people watching the third debate last Thursday night), as voters of the right and center are more numerous than those of the left, with the high stakes involved, and the polarizing nature of the former président de la république who wants his job back.
Verdict late tomorrow evening.
UPDATE: Sunday morning: the latest IPSOS poll, released Friday—but which I hadn’t seen before writing this post—has Fillon, Juppé, and Sarkozy essentially tied, at 29-30%. Wow, what a retournement de situation! 8% of registered voters says that they’re certain to vote, which corresponds to some 3.5 million people. I wouldn’t be surprised at all.