This article was published in The Huffington Post
“I was the king in the family,” Alain Juppé claimed about his pampered upbringing. On a school trip to Lisbon, pleased to have escaped the family bubble, he was surprised to discover upon arriving that his overprotective parents had made the journey as well to check he was alright.
Now 71, Juppé is running to be the presidential nominee for the centre-right Republicans; he first became a minister over 30 years ago. He once declared that in French politics “only physical death counts, otherwise there is always the possibility of resurrection” and is the living proof of the statement’s veracity.
He became one of France’s least popular Prime Ministers in the mid-1990s, having been behind a programme to reform social security and the pension plans of civil servants and employees of public companies. He didn’t consult with organisations representing those affected. There were big demonstrations and three weeks of transport strikes in autumn 1995, forcing a retreat.
In 2004, Juppé received a 14-month suspended sentence after a scandal involving the creation of fictitious jobs under the mayoralty of Jacques Chirac in Paris. He had to resign as Mayor of Bordeaux, a position he later reassumed.
It is rather surprising, then, that Juppé may represent the left’s best hope in next year’s election.
The reason is simple. In the French presidential system, the top two candidates in the first round go through to the run-off a fortnight later. The candidate from the Socialist party is unlikely to make the run-off for president, particularly if it is the incredibly unpopular outgoing president François Hollande. Polls consistently show Hollande failing to make the second round, his share of the vote dropping to as low as 12% in one.
Should the Socialist candidate fail to reach the run-off, progressive voters will be forced to hold their noses and vote for the Republican candidate in order to stop Marine Le Pen of the National Front, who appeals to over a quarter of voters.
The two frontrunners in the race to be the Republican candidate (to be chosen in November) are Juppé and former President Nicolas Sarkozy. The latter is viscerally disliked on the left, as much for his style as his politics. He was Interior Minister under Jacques Chirac, and was notoriously tough-talking on law and order in the banlieues, calling rioters “scum”. On the night of his election as president in 2007 there were disturbances across France.
As president his style was hyperactive. He was a celebrity politician in the Elysée, as he broke up with Cécilia Ciganer-Albéniz and got married again – to singer Carla Bruni. He had a predilection for socialising with the wealthy. He has also faced corruption allegations: of influence peddling and about campaign payments.
His electoral strategy in 2007 and especially 2012 focused partly on attempting to win over National Front voters by talking tough on immigration. His pitch to the country this year is a louder version of the same tune. He has defended the burkini ban, wants to ban the Muslim headscarf in universities and stop pork-free meals for Muslims and Jews in school canteens.
Juppé, in contrast, presents himself as a unifier. It is on the questions of identity and security where he has differentiated himself most from Sarkozy. He has promised reforms “without exploiting fears”. He has ruled out building a Guantanamo-style compound for terror suspects (other Republican candidates want to lock up those under surveillance). His intervention in the burkini debate was to urge others “to stop throwing oil on the fire”.
Attendees at a Juppé rally are more subdued than those at Sarkozy’s rock-show-esque gatherings. He is a less charismatic public speaker. Bernadette Chirac, wife of former president Jacques, said “he doesn’t appeal to people, friends, potential voters, he is very very cold!”
However, this may play well against Sarkozy’s fiery rhetoric. Cultural magazine Les Inrockuptibles, left-liberal and hip, went as far as to put the former prime minister on the cover of a 2014 issue (picture here) titled “Juppémania” with the subtitle “the least worst of them?”. Their thinking was that if the Left cannot win, Juppé is the next best option.
“Basically, the Republic is me,” President Charles de Gaulle famously declared. He positioned himself as representing all of France, spanning the Left-Right divide.
Traumatised by terrorist attacks, depressed by continued economic malaise, desensitised to political scandals, France desperately needs someone who can channel the powerful spirit of de Gaulle, who was caricatured by the magazine Le Canard Enchaîné as the Sun King, Louis XIV. Of the current crop, Alain Juppé looks most able to wear the crown.