Can Alain Juppé really become France’s next president?

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Nicolas Sarkozy returned to the front line of French politics this weekend, easily winning the leadership of France’s leading center-right political party, the Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a Popular Movement).France Flag Icon

But Sarkozy’s breezy leadership resumption doesn’t mean that he should be packing his bags to return to the Élysée Palace anytime soon.

Winning just 64.5% of the vote against token opposition, Sarkozy’s internal UMP victory wasn’t the incredible triumph that he might have hoped. That insouciance underlines the greater ambivalence among the wider French electorate about a Sarkozy comeback. Sarkozy lost his reelection bid in May 2012 to François Hollande, the candidate of the center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party). Though Hollande is now the most unpopular French president of the Fifth Republic, many voters would be happy for Sarkozy to remain on the sidelines. He’s saddled with memories of his ‘bling-bling’ administration, the futility of his reform efforts (beyond raising France’s retirement age) and the growing list of legal troubles that will plague any 2017 presidential bid.

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Hollande is mired with some of the lowest approval ratings of any global leader as the French economy continues to stumble, even in comparison to the sluggish economy of neighboring Germany. Hollande’s high-profile breakup with partner Valérie Trierweiler dominated headlines earlier this year, despite his 2012 promise of a ‘normal’ presidency without the distractions of personal turmoil. His efforts to pass a tax on incomes over €1 million caused a wide backlash, as have his efforts to bring France’s fiscal deficit within EU targets. Hollande attempted a restart earlier this year by appointing a new cabinet, headed by popular interior minister Manuel Valls as France’s new prime minister, but that hasn’t, so far, revamped his reputation.

Even though Hollande (or any Socialist contender, including Valls) seems eminently defeatable, France’s conservatives aren’t even in agreement that Sarkozy is the right candidate for 2017.

Enter Alain Juppé, a senior statesman who hopes to lead the French center-right instead of Sarkozy. Though Juppé chose not to run for the UMP leadership, Sarkozy’s underwhelming victory is being reported as a back-door victory for Juppé, who has already indicated he will challenge Sarkozy for the UMP’s presidential nomination.

Juppé (pictured above) has gone through one of the most extraordinary comebacks in French politics himself. 

Juppé led the UMP’s predecessor, the Rassemblement pour la République (RPR, Rally for the Republic), in the 1994 presidential election that brought Jacques Chirac to power, and Juppé served from 1995 to 1997 as Chirac’s first prime minister. In that role, Juppé became incredibly unpopular when he attempted to cut France’s welfare benefits in a bid to bring its deficit under control — a task that Sarkozy and Hollande have found equally vexing. Juppé and Chirac backed down, but the Socialists nevertheless won the 1997 parliamentary elections, ushering in a five-year period of cohabitation under Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin.

Juppé was a key force in creating the UMP, which unified France’s center-right parties, and he served as the UMP president from 2002, when Chirac won reelection, until 2004, when he was convicted for abuse of public funds in relation to the use of Paris city personnel for running RPR operations. Juppé is widely seen as having been the fall-guy for wide-ranging corruption allegations stemming from Chirac’s tenure as Paris mayor.

Upon appeal, Juppé’s suspended sentence was reduced to 14 months and he was barred from holding office for a year. Though he was forced to resign as mayor of Bordeaux, a position he had held since 1995, he was reelected to the office again in 2006 and Juppé today still serves as Bordeaux’s mayor, giving him a political foothold in an area of the country (southwest France) that reliably supports the Socialists.

It was, ironically, Sarkozy who rehabilitated Juppé’s legacy by bringing him back into government as foreign minister in early 2011.

Now, at age 69, Juppé has emerged as the leading challenger to Sarkozy in the upcoming UMP presidential primary election in 2016. Though that’s a long way off, Sarkozy’s bid to become UMP president is the first step in what will be a long, protracted war between the two veteran conservatives.

A bruising fight between former UMP president Jean-François Copé and former prime minister François Fillon in November 2012 left no clear winner in the UMP’s leadership contest. Fillon, a moderate technocrat who enjoyed generally higher approval ratings than Sarkozy, so narrowly lost the vote that Copé had agreed to hold a second vote to keep Fillon from leaving the UMP. Nevertheless, Copé resigned earlier this year amid an expenses scandal and the UMP’s poor result in the European parliamentary elections.

Juppé emerged earlier this year as a potential candidate, casting himself as a senior statesman with the experience and vision to succeed where Hollande and Sarkozy both failed. Juppé argues that since 1995, a public consensus has emerged in favor of the kind of broad economic reforms that he once attempted. That may be an overstatement, but there’s certainly not much policy difference today between Juppé, the moderate conservative, and Valls, the nominally Socialist prime minister. Juppé’s appeal vis-à-vis Sarkozy is that he can play the role of statesman and reform better than the mercurial former president.

In that regard, Juppé will also present himself as a unifying figure who can bridge the gap between the center-left and the center-right, especially as polls show the far-right Front national (National Front) and its candidate Marine Le Pen leads polls for the 2017 election.

Despite Sarkozy’s attempts in both the 2007 and 2012 elections to sideline Le Pen by running to the hard right on crime and immigration, he has only legitimated Le Pen as a prominent figure in French politics. The National Front easily emerged as the winner of May’s European parliamentary elections, and Le Pen seems certain to win one of two spots in the 2017 presidential runoff.

An October IFOP poll shows that Le Pen would garner 29% to Sarkozy’s 26% (with 14% for Hollande). The same poll shows Le Pen leads Juppé by a margin of 30% to 28%, with Hollande winning 13%, barely more than centrist candidate François Bayrou or far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. (Bayrou has indicated that he would support Juppé).

Hollande, however, is not certain to run — an even more recent IFOP poll shows that just 13% of French voters approve of Hollande’s performance. Though Valls has a 60% disapproval rating, his relatively higher approval rating of 37% means that he could be a much stronger presidential candidate for the Socialists in 2017. Valls, a candidate in the Socialist presidential primaries of 2011, is one of the rising stars on the right wing of the party. He supports rebranding the party less as ‘socialist’ and more as ‘social democratic,’ and he has already clashed with Hollande over cutting France’s generous unemployment benefits. Just months into the Valls premiership, there’s a sense that power in France already lies more in the Matignon than the Élysée, with Valls staking a more aggressive tone on the need for reform. Valls recently won his first major vote on the 2015 budget, despite the abstention of 37 leftists within the Socialist Party and a growing revolt on the party’s left wing. Though it calls for a 4.3% deficit, in excess of EU standards, it still makes significant cuts in planned spending, angering France’s far left.

Regardless, it’s clear that the UMP won’t be alone in facing a bruising internal fight as 2017 approaches.

On Saturday, Bruno Le Maire, Sarkozy’s former agricultural minister, won around 29.2% of the vote in the UMP leadership contest. That will enhance his rising profile on the French right, placing him alongside other figures like Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, a moderate and former environmental minister, who narrowly lost Paris’s mayoral election earlier this year.

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