Once dismissed as an out-of-touch technocrat, Alain Juppé has reinvented himself as France's voice of moderation — and the French love him for it.
Last year, with one eye fixed on its own country’s governing traditions, and the other across the Atlantic, France’s principal conservative party, up until recently known as the Union Pour un Mouvement Populaire, renamed itself Les Républicains. It was an unexpectedly appropriate name change. As fate would have it, with an intra-party primary election on the way this November, this replica Republican party now finds itself roiled by the very same ideological tensions undermining its American cousin.
Consider Nicolas Sarkozy. Never has the former president looked so much like a Gallic Ted Cruz/Donald Trump-hybrid, stumping around the country, beautiful wife on his arm, hammering away at issues of national security and presenting himself as the nation’s sole recourse against the tide of immigrants that “threatens our way of life.” It’s a familiar and depressing script, to be sure — and yet, unlike Trump, Sarkozy’s recourse to extremes may prove less than a winning strategy.
France’s conservative rank and file could have gone the American route, falling for Sarkozy’s anti-immigration (and implicitly anti-Muslim) rhetoric — not to mention the incendiary speeches of National Front leader Marine Le Pen. But, faced with populist fulminating, a growing number of French conservative voters appear to be doing the unexpected. Presented with of fiery stump speeches, they’ve turned, toward moderation. Instead of rage, they’ve sought out experience. Instead of demagoguery, they’ve looked for a less passionate — and more compassionate — approach to France’s economic and social challenges. In moving en masse toward Alain Juppé, it’s as if France’s conservatives are rallying around their own version of John Kasich.
In a Le Monde poll released earlier this month, former prime minister Juppé crushed Sarkozy among conservative voters, garnering 44 percent support to the former president’s 32 percent. His appeal goes beyond just Republicains, however: An Odoxa poll in early January announced that a Juppé candidacy is the only one among all potential presidential candidates, from any party, supported by a majority of voters (56 percent) — a finding reinforced later that month by a poll by Le Parisien newspaper which revealed that Juppé, with 57 percent, took first prize as the country’s favorite political personality.
Perhaps most telling of all, however, is a Libération poll of all French voters taken in the wake of last November’s terrorist attacks in Paris. When voters were asked who among politicians best embodied the values of the French Republic — conveyed in the revolutionary trinity of liberty, equality and fraternity — Juppé not only left Sarkozy in the dust (33 percent to 25 percent), but also beat President François Hollande, who was picked by 30 percent of voters. Only Prime Minister Manuel Valls scored higher, and only by a single percentage point.
That’s quite a transformation for a septuagenarian whose political career, not so long ago, appeared to be over. Today Juppé, is seen as the old sage of French politics: avuncular, human and humane, a man capable of being a unifier, not a divider. (Indeed, the word “sagesse,” or “wisdom” frequently crops up in discussions of Juppé, though some might have winced upon hearing Juppé, as he did in a recent television interview, applying the term to himself.) Little more than a decade ago, however, Juppé embodied for most of his fellow citizens the cold, calculating, technocrat.
Born in the southwestern town of Mont-de-Marsan in 1945, Juppé entered politics as a rightwing revolutionary, determined to end big government and bigger deficits. He developed an early reputation for wonkery, catching the attention of party leaders for their sharp intellects and grasp of detail. (At France’s most elite civil service school, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, Juppé’s analytic bent earned him the nickname Amstrad, the name of a now defunct computer brand.) In 1995 – the same year, incidentally, that Kasich, then an Ohio congressman, was picked by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to lead the battle for welfare reform and a balanced federal budget — Juppé was tapped by newly elected President Jacques Chirac to enact liberalizing reforms of the French welfare state as prime minister.
His government had barely taken office when it announced a tight fiscal policy in order to meet the deficit limits imposed by the EU’s Maastricht Treaty. But Juppé’s ambitious program, which would have pared back many of the country’s so-called acquis sociaux, or social benefits — health care, retirement pensions and the like — led to his undoing. Within days of the announcement of Juppe’s plans, public and private sector workers, convinced that he was opening France to the forces of globalization, joined students and teachers in the streets, forming the largest protests in France since the historic strikes of 1968. The protestors brought the country to a standstill. By year’s end, Juppé’s government backed down, but the damage had been done: Juppé appeared, at best, out of touch and indifferent to the real-life consequences of his reforms, and, at worst, beholden to the dictates of Brussels. In a snap parliamentary election called in 1997, he and his government were overwhelmingly voted out of office.
Given the primordial place the etat-providence, or welfare state, holds in postwar France, Juppé’s task was indeed formidable. But his reputation as an emotionless and unfeeling personality was not helped when it was revealed that, at the same time public protests were rocking France, both he and his son had acquired spacious Paris apartments at rock-bottom rents. Either unaware or unconcerned about the moral tone deafness of engaging in such dealings as millions of fellow citizens were facing pension and health cuts, Juppé refused to concede any wrong doing, infamously declaring during a televised interview: “I’ve a clear conscience and believe in France.”
France, however, no longer believed in him. Hanging from his person like a dead albatross, the phrase followed Juppé around for several years, acting as a stand in for what many saw as disdain for public opinion and an overly developed sense of entitlement, His reputation wasn’t helped when his questionable activities during the 1980s on behalf of Chirac’s party, the RPR, finally caught up with him in 2004. That year, a court found Juppé guilty of having given public contracts to various companies in exchange for party donations. Though the court suspended Juppé’s 18-month sentence, the ruling might have ended his career.
While Juppé is reluctant to reflect, at least publicly, on these episodes, they have clearly changed, if not transformed him. He returned to politics, somewhat chastened, a decade ago as mayor of Bordeaux, determined to use the city as a showcase for his managerial skills. Though he soon returned to the national scene, serving as foreign minister during the twilight years of Sarkozy’s presidency, Juppé never abandoned his city, and remains mayor today. (Though increasingly controversial, the practice of “mandate accumulation,” which allows politicians to fill several positions simultaneously, remains the rule in France.) Under Juppé’s watch, Bordeaux has become a model of urban management and development, one that has thrived as a result of reasonable and bipartisan governance overseen by Juppé. Again, there are parallels with Kasich’s career: Juppé has always held onto his conservative base in Bordeaux, all the while extending it to the center and even the left, just as Kasich did in Ohio upon becoming elected governor there in 2010. In the 2014 municipal elections, Juppé crushed the Socialist candidate with slightly more than 60 percent of the vote, just a tad below Kasich’s 64 percent in the gubernatorial election that same year.
With the publication of a new edition of his book last year, a biography of the Enlightenment thinker Baron de Montesquieu, Juppé cemented his claim as the central figure on France’s center-right, selling a brand of politics that embraced fiscal conservatism, social liberalism, and bipartisan compromise. American politicians also write campaign books, of course, but they tend to be confessional. (While preparing his run for the governor’s mansion in Columbus, Kasich, for instance, published his best-selling Every Other Monday, which recounts his bi-weekly sessions with friends who discuss their faith over coffee and eggs.) The books of French politicians, however, tend to be professorial — biographies about great figures from the past that turn out to resemble the authors. The choice to reissue Juppé’s book, titled Montesquieu, Our Contemporary, was hardly coincidental: not only is the author of The Spirit of the Laws Bordeaux’s most famous native son, he is also one of the country’s most original and influential proponents for political moderation.
Even notable figures on the Left have been seduced by the prospect of a Juppé presidency. Last month, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who began his political career as “Dany the Red” — one of the leaders of the France’s 1968 left-wing student rebellion — and finished it last year as the leading light of the European Green Party, announced his support for the man who, 50 years ago, was on the other side of the barricades. A Juppé presidency, Cohn-Bendit ventured, would “calm the nation,” while also providing breathing space that would allow the left to rebuild a credible political alternative.
Juppé’s words and actions over the past several months seem to justify Cohn-Bendit’s expectations. Not only has Juppé suggested that he would serve just one five-year term in office, but he has repeatedly challenged Sarkozy’s populist appeals. Juppé has mastered the art of sounding like the only grown-up in the room: Last year, he quickly denounced the remark made by Nadine Morano, another Republicain politician, that France was a “country of the white race,” while Sarkozy remained silent for several days. Just as Kasich has ridiculed Trump’s vow to prevent Muslims from entering the United States, Juppé has lambasted Marine Le Pen’s promise to impose “zero immigration,” as well as Sarkozy’s demand to “close” France’s borders. While acknowledging the need to prevent illegal immigration, Juppé also praises the “cultural diversity” brought to France by Muslim immigrants and laments that he was never taught the Quran when he was a student. Whereas Sarkozy, in his quest for National Front votes, insists on the imperative of assimilation, Juppé labels “obsolete” the demand that immigrants “efface their past.” Instead, he argues for an enlightened path to integration that would allow immigrants to become fully French all the while keeping their cultural particularities.
This diversity, for Juppé — and, for that matter, for Kasich — extends to matters of gender and sexual orientation. In an early Republican debate, Kasich accepted the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage and also spoke movingly of having attended a gay friend’s wedding ceremony. Similarly, while Sarkozy vowed to undo France’s recent legalization of gay marriage, Juppé not only insists it must remain the law of the land, but also supports the adoption of children by gay couples.
If there are similarities between Juppé and Kasich, there is, of course, at least one major difference: Kasich, who lodged an unexpectedly strong second-place showing in New Hampshire, looks again ready to be relegated to the margins of Republican politics as the primary race continues. Juppé, on the other hand, looks poised to become the next president of France. (The news this week that Sarkozy is under investigation for illegal campaign spending seems to make Juppé’s nomination a bit more inevitable.) It may well be, as Juppé writes in his book, that Montesquieu’s spirit of moderation and “broad, open and welcoming approach to the world is a lesson for us all.”
But for how long will this lesson hold? Should there be another terrorist attack in Europe — an eventuality Valls insists is a “certainty” — this spirit of moderation risks being among the first casualties. It’s then that we will see whether sounding like the only grown up in the room is enough.
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