Sarkozy vs. Juppé

4 July 2011, Paris, France --- Former French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy --- Image by © Neil Marchand/Liewig Media Sports/Corbis
4 July 2011, Paris, France — Former French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy — Image by © Neil Marchand/Liewig Media Sports/Corbis

On his blog, Art Goldhammer calls attention to the brewing struggle for power in the UMP. Here is my thinking: By hook or by crook, Nicolas Sarkozy will  be the candidate of the UMP, which, in turn, will almost certainly be the dominant political party in the 2017 election. It true that Sarkozy has been up and down in the polls but it would appear likely that his loyalists will have firm control of the party apparatus after the upcoming leadership election, which, in turn, suggests that Sarkozy will have a big fat thumb on the scales during any sort of open primary against Juppé. It’s a simple principle: To paraphrase Stalin, whoever makes the rules will rule.

As for this supposed yearning for centrist leadership that it is claimed will propel Juppé forward—it does not exist. I’ve said many times before, if the French people had the appetite for centrism that the chattering classes attribute to them, François Bayrou would be president and the Mouvement Démocrate would be dominant everywhere in France.

In any case, where will the center of French politics be for the 2017 presidential election and who will be occupying it? The easy answer is: Whoever wins the UMP primary. Will it be Juppé? I have my doubts. Could Juppé make the second round if he isn’t the UMP’s candidate? I would say, no. At the moment, Juppé has no organization for running a campaign independent of the UMP’s resources and also he has an extraordinarily blank slate for a man with a lifetime in politics—with, of course, the notable exception of his disastrous proposals of 1995.

Who else should we look to if not Sarkozy? There is nobody occupying the left and Bayrou, the man who occupied the center previously, seems strangely inert. Worse, there is not so much as a sliver of space between any of the prospective candidates except for Le Pen on Europe or the economy—all are totally committed to austerity and to letting the depression run its course. In other words, at least on the important issues, all the candidates are basically Sarkozy. In effect, France has basically been suffering through Sarkozy’s second term and because neither Juppé nor any prospective candidate is offering anything better in 2017, it is tragically condemned to suffer his third term if anybody but Le Pen wins. This is destined to be an election with no good outcome for France.

As for whether Le Pen can win: I have said repeatedly that I believe she can win and I’ve explained why. At the moment, “Europe” is the placeholder for the dominant economic philosophy of austerity and liquidationism. When Le Pen rails against “Europe” she is implicitly offering something to the voters that every poll shows they want: An end to austerity, the creation of a front against Germany, the protection of people’s retirements, the protection of the social welfare state, and so forth. Normally, all these would be the promises of the Parti socialiste but that is inexplicably no longer the case. Consequently, Le Pen is free to poach among the left and the center.

The prevailing philosophy seems to be that everyone competes only for the votes of right-leaning voters partly because the left is déclassé and out of favor with the interests that now finance all political campaigns while offering the promise of cushy retirements for the political class and because the left (who needs government to function and provide services to the people) will have no choice to vote for the least bad alternative.

At the same time, the prevailing wisdom is that a candidate can sail as close to the right as he or she wishes because the voters of the right understand that their first choice, Le Pen, can’t win so they will settle for whoever panders to them the most. This was always Copé’s attraction and I believe this was the logic underlying Sarkozy’s droitisation in 2012. But it is a strategy that can backfire because if the people of the right see that Le Pen is in the second round against a man of the right, what incentive do they have to vote for their second choice? None—they will uniformly vote for her.

Ultimately, then, that gives Le Pen supremacy on the right and the ability to make significant inroads on the voters of the left, many of whom will need to find new political homes since there will apparently be no authentic candidate of the left competing. An appeal to French nationalism will perhaps allow her to gain some support among the Gaullists who otherwise regard her as anathema. That looks like a potential majority. So why can’t she win?