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France’s summer stars face a tough fall / Nicolas Sarkozy, ‘exceptional man’

France’s summer stars face a tough fall

As presidential campaign season gets serious, media darlings Alain Juppé and Emmanuel Macron will come under fire.

Pierre Briançon
8/29/16, 5:30 AM CET

PARIS — The spring and summer darlings of the French political scene may struggle in the fall.

Alain Juppé and Emmanuel Macron became France’s two most popular politicians over the last few months as voters, tired of both sitting President François Hollande and his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, are looking for new leaders whom they consider more able to deal with the tough period France is going through.

True, the French seem to like both men for different reasons — Juppé because he has experience, Macron because he doesn’t. The former is 71 and was prime minister under conservative president Jacques Chirac more than 20 years ago. The latter is 38 and has only been economy minister — a relatively minor job in the French government — for the last two years.

But so far both men remain high in the electorate’s esteem. Juppé is still the most popular politician, according to the latest IPSOS poll, after spending most of the year in town meetings and honing his message, promising a shock-and-awe push for reform in his mandate’s first six months. And Macron seems to have benefited from his increasing political assertiveness, launching a political movement and promising his followers that he would “lead [them] to victory” next year.

It’s worth noting that part of their appeal is relative, and that they only stand out in contrast to the deep mistrust in which the French hold most other politicians.

Macron’s main problem is that he is mostly popular with conservative voters, and not that much within his own camp.

But both men will face similar challenges to translate into actual votes what IPSOS pollster Mathieu Gallard calls their “paper popularity.” Juppé is running in the conservative Les Républicains party’s primary, to be held in November. Macron is mulling leaving the Socialist government in September or October to be free to run as an independent candidate in the presidential election in May 2017 — a decision he hasn’t made yet, according to an aide.

Juppé’s main rival for now is Sarkozy, who didn’t surprise anyone last week when he officially confirmed he would run. Macron’s main problem is that he is mostly popular with conservative voters, and not that much within his own camp.
Bubble deflation

Several factors may soon challenge both men’s standing in the polls, advisers from within their own camps acknowledge. The first is that the Nice terror attacks in July have put an increased emphasis on security concerns. On the Right, that plays into the tough law-and-order campaign Sarkozy is preparing. On the Left it favors the experience of a sitting president to deal with threats both domestic and foreign.

The second reason why “the bubble may be deflating,” in the words of a top Juppé adviser, is that as France gets nearer to the primaries and the general election, both Juppé and Macron will increasingly become targets for political attacks — first from within their own camps, then from their traditional adversaries.

It has already begun. Sarkozy has spent months alluding not-so-subtly to Juppé’s age, even though he’s only 10 years younger than his rival. And Macron’s proclamations that the Socialist government he belongs to has failed has turned Prime Minister Manuel Valls, his former ally, into an arch-enemy.

“It’s high time for all of this to stop,” a visibly irate Valls said on the eve of Macron’s first big public rally in July.

Valls, meanwhile, is entertaining presidential ambitions of his own in case Hollande bows out, and the prime minister would then be likely to run on a law-and-order platform remarkably similar to that of Sarkozy.

So far the attacks against Juppé and Macron are only skirmishes compared to what awaits the duo once the campaigns start in earnest. Then the candidates’ specific ideas or proposals, which the French tend to forget when polled for popularity ratings, will come under attack.

In that respect Macron may have the most to lose if people start to really pay attention to what he is saying. “There’s a paradox that he remains highly popular with his resolutely liberal agenda — both on the economy and on social matters — in a country that is not that liberal at all,” Gallard said.

As economy minister, Macron has defended reforms that were always far more popular on the Right than on the Left — such as scrapping the 35-hour week, or liberalizing labor markets.

And ever since the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris, he has advocated a response “that would not be all about security” but would include dealing with the derelict banlieues, home to a high proportion of French Muslims. There is “too much urgency and emotion” in the current debates, he recently said.
Simple solutions

All this might make Macron look like a man running against the times, one of his own advisers admits. “Trying to be open and reasonable when politicians are competing on closed borders and demagogy is a fine line to tread,” the adviser said.

But speaking at the first rally of his official campaign on Saturday, Juppé didn’t seem to consider that a losing battle. Without naming Sarkozy, he seemed on the contrary intent on emphasizing the difference with his rival. “My campaign will not be based on fear,” he insisted.

The “three challenges” France must take on, Juppé said, were equality between men and women, the ecology and technological change.

“I will not accept a French-style Guantanamo in which thousands of people would be detained without trial on mere suspicion” — Alain Juppé

In the current context, that might be enough to make Juppé look like candidate Moonbeam.

The former PM however knows he has to talk about terrorism, which seems the only theme Sarkozy intends to run on. But he thinks French voters also want to hear what candidates have to say about the economy, education and even — he and Macron being the only two politicians to even mention the theme — Europe.

His problem is to find a way to appear firm and resolute without emulating Sarkozy’s fierce law-and-order rhetoric — which his aide called “Le Pen-light.” In the book the former president published last week announcing his candidacy, Sarkozy casually brushed off the concerns of “finicky lawyers” concerning proposals that would raise serious constitutional questions — for example on the detention of people suspected of terrorist sympathies.

“I will not accept a French-style Guantanamo in which thousands of people would be detained without trial on mere suspicion,” Juppé said Saturday in a direct answer to Sarkozy’s proposal.

“He’s not the kind to go for the simple solutions people sometimes demand in times like these,” his aide noted.

But the unspoken fear among candidates eager to appear reasonable and measured is that new terror attacks in the next few months might push French voters further towards simplicity.

Nicolas Sarkozy, ‘exceptional man’

The former president’s campaign hails him as nothing less than ‘extraordinary.’

Nicholas Vinocur
9/3/16, 5:29 AM CET

PARIS — North Korea’s school of public relations would be proud.

As Nicolas Sarkozy gets his election campaign underway, supporters from France’s Haute-Saône region published an article on the candidate’s personal website that extolls the former president in terms echoing the breathless tone of Pyongyang news dispatches.

Titled “10 Good Reasons to Support Nicolas Sarkozy’s Campaign,” the article calls him an “exceptional,” “extraordinary” man, a “global authority” who is welcomed by leaders “around the world” with “haste and respect;” a “lucid reformer” who “never lied to the French” and will “modernize our institutions” as soon as he is re-elected.

While the first nine reasons listed for voting Sarkozy focus on his legacy and political reputation, the last one zeroes in on the human being.

“Nicolas Sarkozy is an exceptional man,” it begins.

“His background, his personality, his temperament, his legacy make him an extraordinary man. They say he is ‘divisive.’ That stems from media’s immediacy or on the superficial nature of things. When you analyze his political decisions, they are constantly underpinned by a search for compromise … He is particularly determined and shows an ability to persevere against all odds. The flow of attacks, insults and questioning would have crushed most men. His capacity to resist in any circumstances is impressive.”

Reason number three: “He never lied to the French” is a dig at French President François Hollande, whom Sarkozy accuses of lying constantly.

Reason number four: “He saved our political family,” refers to the fratricide battles taking place within the mainstream center-right party before Sarkozy took control, and promptly rebranded it as “Les Républicains” despite his rivals’ protests.

Reason number five describes Sarkozy as a “lucid reformer.” No matter that the former president himself admits having “regrets” about his time in power, especially his failure to address rigidities in labor market legislation.

Three months before the start of the Républicains primary, which will be held in two rounds on November 20 and 27, Sarkozy is determined to create what he calls a “blast” effect by saturating media with his presence at the expense of rivals, chiefly Alain Juppé, the race’s frontrunner. Sarkozy’s book, “Tout pour la France” (“Everything for France”), is available at train stations across the country, and had sold 32,000 copies three days after its release — a healthy number for a political title.

Early signs suggest the approach is paying off. A TNS-Sofres poll this week showed him neck-and-neck with Juppé in round one of the two-round election, though he was still trailing in the final round.

For an “exceptional man,” closing that gap should be child’s play.


Nicholas Vinocur

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