French primaries will narrow race for next president

François Hollande has little chance of being re-elected


It comes down to a choice between Alain Juppé’s moderation and Nicolas Sarkozy’s platform of fear

By Julia Amalia Heyer, Der Spiegel, Aug. 30, 2016

Alain Juppé, French Republican Party candidate and former conservative prime minister, is the best liked candidate ahead of next year’s presidential elections. He could thwart Nicolas Sarkozy’s comeback and send President François Hollande into retirement.

Juppé, 71, the mayor of Bordeaux and the most promising candidate from his party, Les Republicans, has been in politics for nearly half a century and things have never looked better for him. Polls show that 80 percent of French people want him lead their country again.

Nicolas Sarkozy

Voters, who will go to the polls in November for the primaries, like him more than both Hollande and the right-wing populist candidate Marine Le Pen. Their unpopularity is Juppé’s chance.

Despite his good election prospects, there’s still something sad about Juppé. He’s been leading national polls for months, yet he still seems like a man of the past, like a symbol of the difficulty his country is facing in renewing both itself and its cadre of elites.

Juppé’s current popularity can primarily be attributed to desperation. There are simply no better options.

Hollande has little chance of re-election. He’s even more unpopular today than his predecessor Sarkozy was when he was ousted in 2012. Still, both Hollande and Sarkozy appear to want nothing more than to face off against one another one more time.

François Hollande

Each of them seems convinced that popular aversion to the other is greater than their own unpopularity. Should such a political rematch come to pass, the greatest beneficiary would be Marine Le Pen, who is already rubbing her hands with delight behind the scenes.

As such, Juppé’s candidacy is a significant source of irritation. It’s an inconvenience for Hollande, because the incumbent wants to position himself as a moderate, and it thwarts Sarkozy, who is pursuing a right-wing campaign strategy.

Juppé doesn’t want barriers between Germany and France or border controls within the European Union. “That would be an historical regression,” he says, adding that Muslims are a part of France. “Our strength lies in our diversity.”

Sarkozy, by contrast, has reworked his old strategy of imitating the Front National in an effort to win back voters who have drifted to the far right. He rails against multicultural society, particularly against Muslims, and intends to abolish guarantees that every child born in France automatically gets French citizenship.

He wants Muslim children to eat pork in school cafeterias and headscarves to be banned at universities. But his strategy has not had the desired effect thus far. A majority of French voters simply don’t trust him anymore. Sarkozy’s most influential adviser when he was president, Alain Minc, has come out publicly in favor of Juppé.

Sarkozy paints a picture of a France on the edge of the abyss and of himself as the only viable savior, while Juppé talks about his concept of an “identité heureuse,” a happy identity, by which he means that a more or less peaceful coexistence is indeed possible.

Marine Le Pen

Juppé doesn’t like to be reminded of his hapless stint at the helm of France’s government. He says he “accomplished great things” for his country and his city. He’s been the mayor of Bordeaux for 20 years now, and even those who don’t much care for him admit that he has been good for the city. Bordeaux now has a tram and bicycle lanes, and the city center has become a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Juppé says he only wants to stay in office for a single term, which is perhaps his biggest selling point. It takes the wind out of the sails of those who say he’s too old to be president.

The outcome of the Républicains’ primary is still wide open. It remains to be seen what will ultimately convince voters — Sarkozy’s platform of fear or Juppé’s demonstrative composure. If he can manage to secure his own party’s nomination, it seems likely that his path to the presidency will be open.