Sarkozy Seeks to Outflank French Nationalists

The conservative party leader seeks to defeat the far right but could end up alienating moderate voters.

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy makes a speech in Montpellier, February 28, 2012
Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy makes a speech in Montpellier, February 28, 2012 (Flickr/Nicolas Sarkozy)

French conservative party leader Nicolas Sarkozy has lurched to the right, declaring his opposition to Muslim students wearing headscarfs in public universities and calling on high schools to stop serving halal meals.

In doing so, the former president, who staged a political comeback last year, outdid Marine Le Pen’s National Front, which is neck and neck with his party in polls for local elections this month.

The Front, well-known for its aggressively secular and anti-immigrant platform, had hesitated to call for banning halal meals from public schools, but it quickly endorsed Sarkozy’s proposal.

Courting far-right voters

Sarkozy, of Hungarian ancestry, was a hardliner on immigration issues when he served as interior minister from 2005 to 2007 and later as president.

During the 2012 election, which he lost with 48 percent support, Sarkozy actively tried to court former National Front voters in the runoff against François Hollande.

The latest rhetoric seems an even more blatant attempt to win back voters from the far right two months after Islamist gunmen attacked the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in Paris.

The terror attacks and the ruling Socialist Party’s unpopularity have helped Le Pen rise in the polls. Surveys put her party’s support around 30 percent nationwide, the same as Sarkozy’s conservatives.

The Socialists and their left-wing allies are projected to lose more than twenty of the 61 départements they control.

Eying 2017

Under the French voting system, the Front is unlikely to take control of more than a handful of local governments. Second voting rounds pit the two most popular candidates against each other. Centrist and left-leaning voters can be expected to vote a mainstream conservative into office rather than risk a victory for the far right.

But taking over even a few councils — which control child services, roads and secondary schools — would be a victory for Le Pen, who is positioning herself for a strong bid in the 2017 presidential election.

Last year, the party took control of eleven cities and towns and won three seats in the French parliament. It defeated the other parties in European Parliament elections, winning a quarter of the votes and a third of France’s seats in Strasbourg.

Right-wing split

Sarkozy’s Union pour un mouvement populaire, which the former president is rebranding as Les Républicains, has struggled to rebound despite Hollande’s low approval ratings and his government’s inability to bring down unemployment, stuck at 10 percent.

After Sarkozy’s defeat in 2012, the broad right-wing alliance seemed on the verge of breaking up.

Christian Democrats and liberals contested social policy, such as gay marriage — which the Socialists legalized — while Gaullists and libertarians disagreed about the proper limits to state interventionism.

A leadership feud between Sarkozy’s protégé, Jean-François Copé, and one of his former prime ministers, François Fillon, caused a temporary split in the party’s parliamentary group.

Sarkozy’s comeback put an end to the leadership squabbles but has not resolved the ideological struggles both major French parties live with.

If his strategy is to go Euroskeptic and hard on immigration to defeat the National Front, it could alienate moderate and liberal voters.

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