Is France’s Nicolas Sarkozy trying to ‘Trump’ the far right?

Nicolas Sarkozy

Nicolas Sarkozy

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was likened to Donald Trump this week after the latest in a string of provocative statements that have pushed his presidential campaign ever further to the right.

The comparison with the Republican candidate for the White House, a notorious climate change sceptic, followed a speech on Wednesday in which Sarkozy appeared to question the extent of human involvement in global warming.

In remarks delivered at a business conference and relayed by his office, Sarkozy, who is having another shot at the French presidency after his failed re-election bid in 2012, claimed climate change was receiving too much attention.

“It’s an interesting topic, but climate has been changing for 4.5 billion years,” said the 61-year-old. “Humans are not the only ones responsible.”

In a blunter version of his speech, carried by weekly magazine Marianne and cited by other journalists, the conservative politician was quoted as saying: “If the Sahara became a desert, it’s not the fault of industry. It is typical of humanity’s arrogance to claim that climate change is our doing.”

Either way, Sarkozy’s words were interpreted as an about-face and further evidence of a rightward shift by the former president, whose first move upon clinching the French presidency in 2007 was to launch a cross-party debate on ways to advance sustainable development and a green agenda.

Reacting to his remarks, Emmanuelle Cosse, France’s housing minister and a former Green Party leader, said Sarkozy was “dragging us back 15 years” with his “obscurantist” rhetoric. She added: “He’s sounding like Donald Trump.”

Pandering to the far right

It is not the first time France’s mercurial former “hyper-president” has been likened to the US tycoon. Last month, a column in Germany’s Tageszeitung daily said Sarkozy’s provocative statements on security, Islam and immigration had turned him into a “Trump à la française”.

The newspaper warned that the tone of Sarkozy’s presidential campaign was playing into the hands of the far-right National Front party of Marine Le Pen, who is widely expected to feature in the second round of next year’s election.

“The worst thing is not that Sarkozy might win,” the paper wrote. “But that he is shifting the entire political debate onto the nefarious terrain of fear and xenophobia, on which only the far right can triumph.”

Sarkozy’s brand of national identity politics has positioned him as a hardliner among the dozen candidates vying for the presidential nomination of conservative partyLes Républicains (formerly the UMP), which will be contested in a two-round November primary open to all voters who profess to adhere to “the values of the right and the centre”.

Since the start of the year, Sarkozy has vowed to curb economic immigration, suspend the reunification of immigrant families, toughen conditions for naturalisation, restrict birthright citizenship, and replace the “integration” of immigrants with a policy of “assimilation”, which calls for newcomers to shed traces of their origins to embrace French habits and traditions.

He has seized headlines at a time of heightened public anxiety following a series of extremist attacks, calling for a nationwide ban on “burkini” swimsuits and issuing dire warnings of social strife if France fails to uphold its civic values, which he associates with a militant form of secularism.

All of these proposals bring him closer to the positions of Le Pen’s National Front. But his entourage is convinced they merely reflect the French public’s shifting mood and concerns following the terrorist attacks that have claimed more than 230 lives in the past two years.

According to a survey carried out by Ifop polling institute in the wake of the July 14 attack in Nice, security and the fight against terrorism are now the main preoccupations of French voters, overtaking the economy and unemployment for the first time since 2002.

“Sarkozy has understood that the presidential campaign will play out on the right of the political spectrum,” said political analyst and far-right expert Jean-Yves Camus, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “Public opinion has been upended since the attacks.”

‘All press is good press’

Camus said the challenge for Sarkozy will be to persuade right-wing voters who have rallied behind the National Front to vote for him once again – as they did in 2007 but failed to do five years later, when he lost to Socialist candidate François Hollande.

When Sarkozy swept into the Elysée Palace nine years ago with more than 53% of the vote, his camp claimed credit for bringing the National Front’s score down to a comparative low of 10%. But by 2012 far-right voters had lost faith in Sarkozy and the FN vote bounced back to 18%.

Sarkozy’s attempts to win back their support has seen him adopt tougher stances on some issues than even Le Pen. While the latter professes her attachment to Republican values and the French constitution – part of her strategy to “de-toxify” the National Front – Sarkozy has argued that the fight against terrorism should take precedence over the rule of law, for instance, by suggesting that individuals deemed to pose a potential threat to public security be locked up.

The former president’s high-profile outings have set him apart from his chief rival in the primary race: his moderate, soft-spoken former foreign minister Alain Juppé, who has put forth a vision of a “happy [national] identity” in contrast to Sarkozy’s bellicose rhetoric. Sarkozy’s appearances have helped him command far more media attention than Juppé and accompanied a rise in the polls, appearing to follow Trump’s philosophy that “all press is good press”.

On Thursday, a Harris poll had Sarkozy and Juppé tied at 37 percent ahead of the first round of the primary, scheduled for November 20, indicating that the former president had closed a 17-point gap since May. The poll also suggested that his ratings had not taken a hit from a state prosecutor’s assertion that he should stand trial over funding irregularities in his failed 2012 re-election bid.

Another 2012?

Critics of Sarkozy’s rightward move have argued that a similar strategy failed him during the 2012 campaign, which saw the then-incumbent president adopt a more right-wing platform than in 2007. Frédéric Lefebvre, a former junior minister who advised Sarkozy on both campaigns, said the differing outcomes were evidence that a more conciliatory programme was necessary to win a presidential election.

“France is a country of equilibrium and a candidate cannot stand on a pumped-up right leg and an atrophied left leg,” he told FRANCE 24. “In 2007 we found the right balance, but then Sarkozy drifted away, adopting identity politics as his battle cry five years later, with an outcome we all know.”

Camus warned that Sarkozy’s best efforts to woo voters on the far right would still fall short of their demands.

“One only has to look at the details of Marine Le Pen’s programme to realise that Sarkozy’s proposals will never be enough for FN voters,” he explained. “It includes the death penalty, the end of Schengen [the visa-free EU zone], leaving the European Union, returning to the French franc and exiting NATO. Sarkozy offers none of that.”

However, he acknowledged that the prevailing climate of anxiety may yet tip the balance in Sarkozy’s favour – at least in the conservative primaries, at which point the former president may no longer need the support of far-right voters.

With the ruling Socialists headed for a drubbing, polls suggest next year’s presidential run-off is likely to pit Le Pen against whoever wins the conservative ticket. In such a scenario, centrist and left-wing voters would have little choice but to rally behind the least unpalatable option, whether it is Juppé or Sarkozy.