Campaigning on Tuesday, less than 48 hours after the first round of Presidential election voting in France, Nicolas Sarkozy said this:
“If there is a candidate from the National Front, it’s because she had a right to be a candidate….So from the moment you run in an election you have the right to run in the election, as far as I know. You are compatible with the Republic.”
Libération, the leftist newspaper, turned that into this morning’s front page:
A lot of people in Sarkozy’s party aren’t happy. “An outrageous, dishonest and unacceptable attempt at political misinformation,” the secretary-general of Sarkozy’s party says in a communiqué.
But it’s clear that Sarkozy is going all-out to appeal to the 18% of voters who supported Marine Le Pen’s National Front in Sunday’s vote. He’s not the only candidate interested in those voters. François Hollande, the Socialist, told Libération he’d seek their support too, and Libé played that quote up just as big:
There is a subtle distinction though, one that has historically not been treated as subtle by most French politicians. You can appeal to people who voted for a party without endorsing that party’s arguments and policy prescriptions. Both finalists in a presidential election must do the former. Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy’s predecessor, used to refused outright to do the latter. Marine Le Pen is more polished than her father, but a widespread argument in French politics holds that her party’s constant harangues against every visible sign of Islam violate the values of the French Republic, including at least the last two of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.” That’s why it’s such a bold, indeed shocking, thing to say Le Pen and the Republic are compatible.
A few voices in Sarkozy’s party are nervous, if not contemptuous, about his strategy. Chantal Jouanno, a former minister of sport in the current government and now a senator, said that if it comes down to a choice between the Socialists and the National Front in the legislative elections that will follow the presidential elections by only a few weeks, she’ll vote Socialist because the Front is beyond the pale. François Fillon, Sarkozy’s prime minister and, at least in theory, one of the few grown-ups in his party, called Jouanno’s appeal to moderation “stupid.”
There’s also the risk — I think the certainty — that Sarkozy will turn off at least as many opponents of Le Pen as he will attract her supporters. François Bayrou is a fringe centrist candidate who got half the votes Le Pen did; his support is in play too. He called Sarkozy’s campaign since Sunday a “humiliating, supine and doomed race for the values of the National Front.”
In its lead editorial for tomorrow’s print edition, Le Monde calls Sarkozy’s campaign “a moral fault” and warns that the incumbent President is at risk of “losing his soul.” More prosaically, there is every chance that Sarkozy will tear his own party apart in a doomed attempt to catch up to Hollande.
One more thing. In an article in our pages three years ago, Mark Steyn argued that the rise of right-wing extremism in France was a result of excessive mainstream ostracism of right-wing views. I was publicly very critical of Mark’s arguments in that article, but the French election, indeed Sarkozy’s entire career to date, looks like a handy test of Mark’s thesis.
“The problem in Europe is not a lunatic fringe but a lunatic mainstream ever more estranged from its voters,” he wrote. All righty, then: Sarkozy has gone further than any of his predecessors to escape the “lunatic” — i.e., anti-National Front — mainstream and to embrace the Front’s voters. As a direct result, the Front has scored its highest first-round Presidential election support ever, and Sarkozy is campaigning for the top job as a stunt double for Marine Le Pen. I’m not sure this is the way it was supposed to work out.