After Party Name Change, Sarkozy Sets Sights on Rival

The former French leader must now convince his party to give him another go at the presidency.

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy won a political victory this weekend when conservative party members overwhelmingly backed his proposal to rebrand themselves as Les Républicains. A more difficult battle lies ahead: to beat Alain Juppé in the party’s presidential primaries.

83 percent of party members supported the name change; a much higher figure than the 64.5 percent that backed Sarkozy’s leadership bid in November. The former president, who narrowly lost reelection against the Socialist Party’s François Hollande in 2012, looks to be staging an impressive political comeback.

The right has done well in local elections since Sarkozy returned to politics. It beat the Front national into second place in departmental elections in March. The result was a vindication of his strategy to lure disaffected rightwingers back into the mainstream. Before the election, Sarkozy had made headlines saying headscarfs should be banned from public universities and nationalization requirements tightened.

The hard line is popular with the party faithful but less so with the electorate at large.

Similarly, Sarkozy is more popular in the party while his main rival for the presidential nomination, former prime minister Alain Juppé, is more popular nationwide.

“Nicolas Sarkozy has the party behind him, I have public opinion,” Juppé snapped in a radio interview on Sunday.

He has proposed a pact with François Bayrou, the pro-European centrist who endorsed Hollande in 2012 after winning 11 percent support in the first voting round.

The competition between Juppé and Sarkozy reflects the French right’s dilemma. Move to the middle and hardliners could switch to the Front national. Move too far to the right and centrists might defect.

Sarkozy holds the better cards because the Front national is a bigger threat. Centrist voters are less likely to vote for the Socialists than Front national supporters are to vote for the Republicans. French voters may prefer Juppé over Sarkozy but that includes Socialist Party supporters who are not going to vote Republican anyway.

Given the choice between the uninspiring Hollande and the uninspiring Juppé, far-right voters are likely to stick with Marine Le Pen, splitting the right-wing vote. If the Socialists nominate a better candidate, like Prime Minister Manuel Valls, they could even end up staying in power that way.