Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy is shifting his party to the right in the wake of Islamic terror attacks in Paris this month, arguing that multiculturalism has made Western democracies vulnerable to extremism.
The hardline rhetoric may be designed to stave off defections to the Front national, a party on the far right that has said France should exit the European visa-free Schengen Area.
The Paris attacks, which left more than 130 dead, are believed to have been plotted in Belgium.
In his first public rally since the attacks — which President François Hollande of the ruling Socialist Party called an “act of war” — Sarkozy argued there could be no “French identity” in a multicultural society.
“France is not a supermarket,” he told supporters in the northern town of Schiltigheim. “It’s a whole.”
The rhetoric is not unfamiliar. Sarkozy similarly tacked to the right in the 2012 presidential election, but still lost to Hollande.
He is now planning a comeback.
In the most recent local election campaign, the former president proposed a ban on headscarfs at public universities as well as stricter nationalization requirements.
It paid off. His party beat Marine Le Pen’s Front national into second place.
But now it seems rightwingers are opting for the real thing. Le Pen is ahead in the polls for regional elections that are due in December. Sarkozy’s Les Républicains could even be pushed into third place if Hollande’s popularity, up since he launched airstrikes against the Middle Eastern group that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, stays high.
Splits on the right
There is also a risk that Sarkozy’s attempts to outflank the far right end up splitting his own party.
Le Pen is protectionist and wants France to leave the euro whereas Les Républicains have supported austerity and market reforms in opposition to Hollande’s Socialist government. A liberal economic program would not win them many favors with the Front‘s working-class supporters, especially in the deindustrialized north that is likely to be the main battleground between the two right-wing parties.
A Front-light, more Gaullist program, on the other hand, would disappoint genuine liberals as well as the small centrist parties that have teamed up with Les Républicains for the upcoming elections.
It could also leave room for the Socialists to claim they are now more serious about making France competitive.
Under Prime Minister Manuel Valls, a social democrat, the left is making some efforts to revitalize the sclerotic French economy.