The debate earlier this month between French politicians hoping to win the conservative presidential nomination was a clash of personalities, an illustration of different right-wing traditions, a contest to write the history and define the legacy of Sarkozy’s presidency, a fierce discussion on appropriate tactical alliances, and, at some points, a technical debate.
The debaters included a former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, two former prime ministers, three former heavy-weight ministers, and an unknown, a 53-year-old convert to Catholicism who heads the small Christian Democratic Party, specialises in labour issues, who paid a visit to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and supports Donald Trump, claiming he fears Clinton’s ties with Wall Street.
Jean-Frédéric Poisson, the pro-Trump candidate, was the revelation of the first presidential debate and impressed the pundits, even if his chances are considered slim. Then he began bungling with a statement on Zionist lobbies, and completely sunk during the second debate.
These kinds of candidates do not really run for the nomination – they prepare for the next one (for the 2022 election) and try to present their credentials to public opinion.
The same goes for former minister Jean François Copé, who has a peculiar trajectory. A former government heavy-weight minister, the mayor of Meaux, at the beginning of his career he impressed the intellectuals with his culture, his curiosity, his frank talk, his wit and his incredible ability in “la conversation” and abstract reasoning.
Then, all of sudden, he became a populist. A non-practising Jew, twice married, the second time to a psychiatrist of Algerian descent, the lawyer is a former student of the prestigious Ecole nationale d’administration, and also specialises in “new public management”. He was the secretary-general of the party and was forced to resign after his implication in a financial scandal concerning election funding.
The investigation exculpated and exonerated him, and he claims he was the victim of machinations orchestrated by Sarkozy and Fillon. But his reputation has been badly damaged and needs much repair work.
He impressed the pundits with his self-mockery and his nice responses, but, if we are to believe the polls, the voters remain unconvinced. Both Copé and Poisson are competing to avoid last place.
Nathalie Kosciusko Morizet, like Copé, was a heavy-weight government minister and has presidential ambitions – but not for this election, for the next one. She is the youngest of the lot, the daughter of a great dynasty, a product of France’s "grandes écoles" system, and all my friends who have met her have been impressed by her intellectual ability.
Deeply interested in ecological issues, she has connections with both the rightist and the leftist elites. But is this a blessing or a curse? She seems too centrist and too “modern” for the current public’s opinion mood, but I might be wrong. During the debate, she was quite impressive, although I found her obsessed by a kind of hatred for Nicolas Sarkozy.
Bruno Lemaire is a former diplomat and I admit to not knowing much about him. For me, he committed a serious mistake when he insisted on the need for “new blood”. This seemed to imply being a relatively unknown guy was good enough, and like an attempt to capitalise on others’ inglorious past.
Some of his propositions looked interesting, others not serious; of course, the same could be said about many others’ programmes.
Nevertheless, he mishandled the two debates and he now needs a miracle to achieve his target: becoming the second or the third man. But in France’s elections, miracles can happen.
The three main contenders, Sarkozy, Alain Juppé and François Fillon are well-known and need no introduction. Each of them has his distinctive trademark.
Former prime minister Juppé is leading in the polls, but Sarkozy has the favours of the rightist electorate… and of François Hollande: many centrists and leftists could accept in their hearts a Juppé victory, but have such hatred for the former president that they would, even reluctantly, vote for Hollande to avoid a second Sarkozy mandate.
Fillon, during the debates, looked as serious, brilliant and statesman as ever, but he lags behind in the polls and his only chance would be a collapse of Sarkozy’s campaign.
What was striking during the second debate was the general onslaught on Sarkozy. Almost everybody, with the relative exceptions of the two other top guys, fiercely attacked him. This seems strange, as Sarkozy’s constituency is a solid minority and is not going to shrink (except for new scandals). The hatred Sarkozy inspires in many is not a satisfactory explication: these professional politicians know how to rein in their passions.
There are three possible explanations for this surprise: everybody thinks Sarkozy will lose and does not want to antagonise the next president, Juppé. Alternatively, everybody has a deal with Juppé and is focusing on the weakening of his main competitor. Or, everybody believes things could happen and thinks he (or she) has a chance to emerge second in the first round of primary’s election. So weakening the second-placed candidate looks more realistic than attacking the very solid Juppé.
Nevertheless, they might unwittingly have helped Sarkozy. The former president is at his best when he is under attack, his aggressive leanings look justified and are better accepted, and these attacks strengthens the cohesion of his constituencies.
Moreover, he looked quiet and he did not lose his temper –and his replies were strong and often convincing. At some points, he was helped by Fillon, as Sarkozy’s legacy is, to a great extent, Fillon’s as prime minister.
For instance, both said the shrinking of police’s workforce, which they had implemented, was convincingly explained as a necessary consequence of the 2008 economic crisis and the resulting budgetary restrictions.
But these attacks on Sarkozy had a consequence: the former president spent a large amount of his allocated time to reply, explain and repel offensives, and did not have enough time to seriously attack Juppé. He contented himself with a strong criticism of Juppé’s alliance with centrist former presidential candidate François Bayrou.
But, once again, these constraints are not necessarily bad news.
To be continued