Lille – Since former French President Nicolas Sarkozy returned to politics last fall and took back control of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) as party chairman, he has worked to build the party into what it once was: the perfect machine to conquer the seated power. After reorganizing the party’s structure, Sarkozy decided last month to take the next step in this reconstruction by changing the party’s name. Out with the UMP. Behold the “Republicans.”
Yes, the “Republicans.” Not the Republican Party, its distant American cousin, but quite simply the “Republicans.” Les Républicains, in the language of Molière. While the change appears simple and Sarkozy can choose any party name he pleases, the decision sent a shock wave across the French political spectrum, eliciting strong reactions from both Sarkozy’s party allies and the government majority. Is this another in the former president’s long line of errors? Perhaps not. It might very well be a shrewd political move, like the maneuvers Sarkozy employed in his first presidential run.
Turning the Page on the UMP
The names of the French political parties reveal something about their conception of politics. Left-wing parties and the names they choose tend to emphasize precise ideological positions. On the other hand, right-wing parties often approach the naming process with a realistic attitude, giving their parties the names with the best chances for successful reception. While the Socialists have only had two names for their party in the last century, the Conservatives have had five different names since World War II.
In this sense, the name “Republicans” perpetuates the right-wing tradition of building parties in order to carry strong leaders to power. Sarkozy’s decision signals his wish to reform the party’s dynamic, likely in an attempt to engineer a return to the Elysée in 2017. But Sarkozy is not yet the strong leader of this new party, and he is certainly not the natural candidate for the 2017 presidential election.
In order to consolidate his position, Sarkozy first needs to turn the page on the old UMP. He needs to move the party past the ridicule that followed the dispute between Jean-François Copé and François Fillon when they fought for the party’s nomination in the fall of 2012. But Sarkozy must also navigate the effects of his own first term, as well as the consequences of several judicial investigations launched against him for corruption and campaign finance over the last several years. It is likely that Sarkozy will be questioned on several of these issues before election time, and if the former President wants to be remembered as a strong statesman rather than a corrupted party leader, he needs to distance himself from the past.
The Most Republican
Should Sarkozy manage to secure the party nomination during the 2016 primaries, the name “Republicans” may prove an advantage on the road to 2017. In the wake of the Paris terror attacks in January, there has been a consensus among the main parties – with the notable exception of the Front National – to gather around the republican ideal. This vague notion of a united society has since been adopted by nearly every side to justify a wide range of policies. All parties claim to be more republican than their opponents, but it looks like Sarkozy has found a masterful tactic to win this name-calling game.
All evidence points to the next election being a three-candidate race between President François Hollande for the Parti Socialiste, FN candidate Marine Le Pen, and the “Republican” candidate to be named. With only two seats in the decisive second round of the election, Sarkozy would not only have to secure his own base, but also gather those at the center of the political board. A strong republican image can secure these political moderates for Sarkozy, but only if he outperforms competitors in this respect. In pursuit of votes, he has made himself “the most republican” candidate in the race.
After dubbing himself the one true republican, Sarkozy did not wait long before criticizing the PS for dividing French society: “They are socialist before they are republicans. We are republican first and foremost,” he recently claimed. A brilliant and simplistic accusation, leaving PS First Secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadélis with the difficult task of responding intelligibly. Cambadélis replied, “Being socialist is rooting for the most perfect republic,” one of equality, which may not be the best argument given current wealth distribution and unemployment in the country.
Perverting the Republican Ideal
As brilliant a political strategist as he is, Sarkozy may nevertheless dangerously skew the basic terms of French government. Article 4 of the French Constitution underlines the importance of political parties in the electoral process: they create a system that gives ideological landmarks to the voters. By defining himself as the one true republican, Sarkozy could mislead voters, as he takes possession of a broad characteristic that defines many main parties.
The distortion runs deeper. Sarkozy not only claims the republican notion for his own, he is changing the very meaning of the republican ideal. With the political moderates in hand, Sarkozy is pursuing a dangerous campaign to capture the radical right. Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, some FN rhetoric equated peaceful French Muslims with religious extremism, suggesting that any purportedly pro-Islam legislation threatened highly prized laïcité, the separation of religion from the French government. Sarkozy has capitalized on this fervor, aligning his strong republican identity with his right-wing anti-Muslim position.
In a groundbreaking article in 1989, philosopher Régis Debray defined the differences between democrats and republicans (as political identities, not American political parties). Debray contended that democrats conceive of the state as one regulative factor integrated into society at large, while republicans advocate for a stronger state entity, which imposes equality down into the society from above via the strength of the law. Sarkozy is pushing Debray’s republicanism with a twist: the imposition of so-called equality – closer in reality to religious intolerance and the secular Christian tradition – in the name of the republican ideal. Condemning meal alternatives for Muslim students in public-sector schools is just the latest example, revealing how far Sarkozy will stretch powerful state opposition to Islam in order to cement his own electoral base.
Manipulating the concept of laïcité is not new for Sarkozy. Ever since his infamous speech of Grenoble in 2011, the former president has been integrating the notion into his policies on crime and Islam. This strategy may have worked for Sarkozy in the 2007 election against the scandalous FN candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, but it failed in 2012 against Marine Le Pen, who ran on a republic-compatible platform. With President Hollande at a historical low in the polls, Sarkozy may achieve the same balance of moderates and right-wing voters that led him to victory eight years ago. Yet, for the sake of one election, he may also cost us all a higher price: our very concept of the republican ideal.
Hugo Argenton is LJP’s French columnist. He lives in Lille, France. The opinions expressed in this editorial are his own and are not indicative of LJP’s views.