French conservative party leader Nicolas Sarkozy lurched to the right this week, declaring his opposition to Muslim students wearing headscarfs at public universities and saying high schools should no longer serve halal meals.
In doing so, the former president, who staged a political comeback last year, outdid Marine Le Pen’s Front national which is neck and neck with his party in polls for local elections later this month.
The Front, well-known for its aggressively secular and anti-immigration platform, had hesitated to call for banning halal meals from public schools but quickly endorsed Sarkozy’s proposal.
Sarkozy, of Hungarian ancestry, was something of a hardliner on immigration issues when he served as interior minister between 2005 and 2007 and later as president.
During the 2012 election, which he lost with 48 percent support, Sarkozy actively tried to recruit former Front national voters in a runoff against the Socialist Party’s 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 the Front rise in the polls. Surveys put the 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 out of the 61 départements they control.
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 Front national.
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.
Sarkozy’s Union pour un mouvement populaire, which the former president is rebranding as Les Républicains after winning a leadership contest in November, has struggled to rebound despite President Hollande’s low personal approval ratings and his left-wing government’s inability to revive growth and 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 must live with. If his strategy is to go Euroskeptic and hard on immigration to defeat the Front, it could alienate moderate and liberal voters who have an alternative in the Union des démocrates et indépendants. The centrists currently have thirty seats in the National Assembly where 289 are needed for a majority.