Can French Sanity Hold Out Against the Forces of the Far-Right?

The surprising political upset of Nicolas Sarkozy may be just the trick to stop Marine Le Pen and the National Front from taking power. Or not.

Former French president and losing candidate of the right-wing Les Republicains party primaries ahead of the 2017 presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy leaves his offices in a car on November 21, 2016 in Paris.
Sarkozy's defeat at the hands of his former premier Fillon, a man he once nicknamed "Mr Nobody", marked what appeared to be an ignominious end to the ex-president's forty years in politics.  / AFP / GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT        (Photo credit should read GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP/Getty Images)
Former French president and losing candidate of the right-wing Les Republicains party primaries ahead of the 2017 presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy leaves his offices in a car on November 21, 2016 in Paris. Sarkozy's defeat at the hands of his former premier Fillon, a man he once nicknamed "Mr Nobody", marked what appeared to be an ignominious end to the ex-president's forty years in politics. / AFP / GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT (Photo credit should read GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP/Getty Images)

If you’ve been reading and watching international news following Donald Trump’s shocking victory, you can’t be blamed for believing France could be the next domino to fall to the forces of extreme-right, anti-immigrant nativism. Certainly Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Front, is championing this idea of a global awakening. Trump had not yet delivered his victory speech when Le Pen gleefully tweeted her congratulations. “It’s not the end of the world,” she declared the next day, “but the end of a world.” Her father — founder and former leader of the National Front, with whom she’s had a falling out — was even more direct. “Today the United States, tomorrow France!” tweeted 88-year-old Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The post-Trump drums of a coming Le Pen victory have been deafening over the past week. The Financial Times’s Gideon Rachman wrote that she now “looms over a Trumpian world.” “Europe Trembles,” proclaimed Britain’s virulently anti-European Union Express. The Economist’s Nov. 19 cover featured Trump, decked out in American Revolutionary garb, beating his nationalist drum in time with an admiring Nigel Farage while Vladimir Putin plays the fife. Marine Le Pen, as a Eugene Delacroix-style Liberty — or Marianne as the French know her — was right there with them, leading the people, her raised fist clutching a French tricolor.

And yet the dynamics in the coming contest between Le Pen and whoever she eventually faces off against are not the same as those that carried Trump to victory. In a recently published interview with Trump’s right-hand man, Steve Bannon, the Hollywood Reporter’s Michael Wolff noted that the U.S. “liberal firewall against Trump was, most of all, the belief that the Republican contender was too disorganized, outlandish, outré and lacking in nuance to run a proper political campaign.”

The French, however, have no such delusions. They have been awake and alive to the extreme-right threat for over two decades, and have time and again proved to be sophisticated, politically astute voters in their bid to block the menace.

Those qualities were on display Sunday night, when French conservatives held their first primary for the 2017 presidential election. It was the opening round of the conservative primary. Under French rules, a candidate who does not get 50 percent of the vote has to run against his or her nearest challenger in a second round. That second round will be held Nov. 27.

But already, there’s big news: Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy is out of the presidential race. The tireless, twitchy, 61-year-old conservative, who has of late been the Energizer Bunny of French politics, held the nation spellbound Sunday night when he delivered his concession speech. Final results were still not available, and yet it was obvious that Sarkozy was trailing so far behind his former prime minister, François Fillon, and his former foreign minister, Alain Juppé (a veteran 71-year-old politician who has also served as prime minister), that his political comeback was over.

As the polls closed Sunday night, the action — as always — was centered around Sarkozy’s headquarters near the Quai Branly museum in the French capital. The former French president is a pugnacious politician; he had made alarming noises about potential voter fraud in the lead-up to Sunday’s vote, and there are never any guarantees on how the irascible, emotional Sarkozy will react. But this time, his concession speech was dignified and generous. “I haven’t been able to convince the majority. I respect the will of the people,” Sarkozy said before adding: “The time has come for me to perhaps focus on my private passions more than my political passions. Good luck, France.”

He’s said that before, of course, when the French electorate voted him out of the presidency in 2012. And Sarkozy might resurface in yet another political avatar — he’s too much of a political animal to stay away from the fray forever. But for now, his dream of making it back into the Élysée presidential palace next year is truly over. For that, one has to salute the astuteness and intelligence of French voters.

Here’s why: The conservative primary is critical because most French citizens, including experts and pollsters, believe the center-right candidate will be the one to face off against Le Pen to be next president of France. Given the weakness of the ruling Socialist Party, and the unpopularity of French President François Hollande, the candidate of the left is unlikely to make it past the April 2017 first round of the presidential election, in which all but the top two finishers are eliminated. One of those top two will almost certainly be Le Pen.

When a Le Pen — or his or her party — makes it to a second round of elections, French conservatives and leftists have historically come together in a front républicain to block the National Front. This happened in 2002, when conservative Jacques Chirac squared off against Jean-Marie Le Pen following Socialist Lionel Jospin’s shocking defeat in the first round. Chirac swept the second round with a whopping 82 percent of the vote; such was the scale of revulsion at the prospect of a racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic bigot in the Élysée palace. Last year — barely a month after the deadly Paris attacks — French voters did it again in the December regional elections, when conservatives and the left banded together to block a National Front sweep.

For this maneuver to work in 2017, however, Sarko had to go.

Sarkozy is anathema to most French left-wing supporters. They blame his high-strung obsession with national identity and Islamic extremism for making Le Pen’s views appear more palatable and mainstream. On the campaign trail, he advocated stricter immigration rules across Europe and vowed to ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves at universities and possibly elsewhere. (Hijabs are banned in French public schools, as are all other visible signs of religion in strictly secular France.)

While there would be those on the left who, in the event of a Sarkozy candidacy, would still hold their nose and vote for anything not named Le Pen, many were worried that, should he win the Republican primary, France would see a Hillary Clinton effect, with hatred running so strong that even those who loathe the idea of a National Front government would be unable to pull the trigger for the former president.

“TSS … Tout Sauf Sarkozy (anything besides Sarkozy),” a civil servant friend told me. “I believe that this time, if the second round sees [Sarkozy] opposing Le Pen, I will not be able to vote. Honestly … I really think I will stay home,” he continued in a Facebook message. Analysts have long predicted that a runoff between Le Pen and Sarkozy was most likely to favor the extreme-right candidate.

And so, the French left — or at least parts of it — did a complex, yet nimble, political dance on Sunday. Many French left-wingers — we probably will never know just how many — held their noses and took the plunge, voting in Les Républicains’ primary. To do this, they had to juggle principles versus pragmatism: It was an open primary, but voters had to sign a statement saying they agreed with “Republican and right values” and pay two euros (about $2) to cover the cost of holding the vote.

In the lead-up to the Nov. 20 primary, several surveys indicated that as many as 15 percent of participants could be left-wing supporters. I’ve never trusted pollsters, and in these post-Trump, post-Brexit days, even less so. But what I do know is based on interviews with a number of French lefties, none of whom wanted to be named, all of whom said they had made an informed, calibrated decision to vote on Sunday. The two euro cost? The price of democracy, dismissed a 38-year-old entrepreneur. Signing up for Republican and right values? “I’m for Republican values, and what’s right anyway? You think Hollande is left?” asked a retired schoolteacher and longtime Socialist supporter as she stood in line at a polling station in my very left, very immigrant neighborhood in Paris’s 10th arrondissement. Did Trump’s victory play a role in their decision? The answer was mixed: Most said they had planned to vote across party lines before the Nov. 8 U.S. election, but the Republican’s shocking victory had strengthened their resolve.

For many of these voters, a vote for Juppé was not even particularly painful. The former prime minister has turned into a darling of the despairing left in recent months. Attracted by his moderate conservative platform, his public denouncement of the Hollande administration’s post-Paris attacks’ bid to strip binational terror suspects of their French citizenship, and his vision of French society based on respect for religious freedom and ethnic diversity, they’ve rallied around a Juppé ticket. Sarkozy blasted Juppé for selling out to the left in a series of televised debates that were so detailed and policy-saturated, it would stun Americans. In the lead-up to Sunday’s vote, Sarkozy — in his best imitation of Trump-like demagoguery — was already crying foul over the left-wing voting in the conservatives’ primary. “I will not let the left steal this election from you!” he bellowed to a crowd at a recent campaign rally. It was for this very reason that a number of National Front supporters — once again, we probably won’t ever know the actual figures — voted for Sarkozy in the Nov. 20 primary.

In the end, Sarkozy could not cry foul because the winner of Sunday’s poll, by a whopping 44 percent, was the Catholic, Margaret Thatcher-worshipping Fillon, whom the former president endorsed in his concession speech. The anti-gay-marriage crowd, represented by the Sens Commun movement, rallied for the socially conservative Fillon, who voted against the 2013 law legalizing gay marriage and opposes adoption for same-sex couples.

As election night wound down and the results became clear, some of my gay and women’s rights activist friends were in despair over the Fillon win. The former prime minister happens to be a staunch Putin supporter and refuses to call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s exit since “the Christians of Syria would have to choose between the suitcase and the coffin.” Le Pen is likewise pro-Assad — she sees him as a good Islamist killer — and pro-Putin. If it comes to Fillon vs. Le Pen in the presidential face-off, Putin’s going to be a very happy man — especially with a new friend in the White House.

But in any case, the nimble French left, or at least parts of it, are not ready to give up. They still have the Nov. 27 primary face-off, and they’re hoping more liberals, alerted by Fillon’s anti-gay rights, Catholic support, will display the astuteness they did in cutting down Sarkozy’s presidential dreams. But if the polls are to be believed, the odds are stacked against them. The first opinion poll published since the announcement of the results of Sunday’s first round showed Fillon getting 56 percent of the vote for the second round, while Juppé claimed 44 percent. Few polls show how Fillon would fare against Le Pen; until recently, his candidacy was considered a long shot.

This year’s conservative primary was the first such contest to be held in France and it was Sarkozy’s idea to keep it an open race, insisting that “the people” should have a say in the campaign. But clearly his team was not at all pleased with how it worked out, with leftist voters choosing their opponents’ candidate. There will undoubtedly be a reckoning with how the 2016 conservative primary worked out once the 2017 presidential election is done; it will be interesting to see if the party holds on to the open-vote format.

But that’s in the future; for now, “the people” are indeed having their say. Now if only the French Socialists — who, like many left-inclined parties, are adept at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory — could pick up their act. But that’s another story. Hollande has not officially declared his candidacy in the 2017 race. That’s how hopeless the Socialists are these days. But he has until a Dec. 15 deadline. His German counterpart, Angela Merkel, just declared her candidacy for the 2017 German election. Leaders from this old continent can seem slow and creaky by U.S. standards. Luckily, the citizens who vote for them remain fleet-footed and determined to do what has to be done.

Photo credit: GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @leelajacinto
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