Sarkozy defeat leaves one question: What next for French Right?

PARIS — “There are successes in life, and there are failures,” a somber Nicolas Sarkozy told a legion of sad-faced supporters at Mutualite Hall in the Latin Quarter here last night.  The center-right president had conceded defeated to Socialist Francois Hollande, barely 10 minutes after polls closed and several television networks called the race for Hollande.  In taking full blame for the defeat, Sarkozy also reiterated his promise not to lead his UMP (conservative) party in parliamentary elections in June.

So with Sarkozy making it clear he was finished with politics, conservatives here were wondering “What do we do next?”

The right’s dilemma in France is akin to that of their U.S. counterparts after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.  Like Obama, Socialist Hollande is sure to generate fervent opposition because of a decidedly big-spending, tax-hiking, and statist agenda that he made no secret of in the campaign.

And like U.S. conservatives, the French right has several factions and there is, for now, at least, no natural leader to unite all.

Immediate attention is focused on Marine Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant and anti-European Union National Front, who drew a whopping 18 percent of the vote (and third place) in the initial balloting for president April 22.  The 43-year-old Le Pen refused to endorse Sarkozy or Hollande in the run-off and said either would reduce the French to “employees of the European Central Bank.”  Now she is clearly trying to position herself as the voice of opposition to Hollande and is focused on winning seats for her party in the June elections for the National Assembly (parliament).

But, as Human Events has noted before, Le Pen is more populist than conservative and thus a flawed leader for the right.  For all her embrace of Ron Paul and the U.S. tea party movement, the daughter of controversial National Front founder Jean Marie Le Pen voices admiration for Vladimir Putin, wants worldwide environmental regulation, and has even praised the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The other leading voice of opposition to Hollande will be Sarkozy’s center-right UMP (Union for Popular Movement).  A loose coalition of traditional conservatives, free market liberals, and Christian Democrats, the UMP, according to the Financial Times, “remained largely united under Mr. Sarkozy’s presidency.  But [the defeat Sunday] is likely to put the party under considerable strain in advance of parliamentary elections.”

Even before the election Sunday, those strains were beginning to show.  When Defense Minister Gerard Louget suggested possible cooperation with Le Pen, UMP Chairman Jean Francois Cope publicly slapped him down by declaring, “There will be no electoral agreement with the National Front, nor discussion nor negotiation with [its] leaders.”

Cope, and outgoing Prime Minister Francois Fillon, are both considered close associates of Sarkozy and both are considered possible candidates for president in 2017.  A more intriguing possibility is the lady who isn’t there: Christine LaGarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. and easily the best-known French figure in America.  More than a few LaGarde watchers and particularly the French press in Washington point out that her contract with the IMF ends in June 2016, and that gives the former finance minister ample time to secure her party’s nomination and run in 2017.  While she presently lacks the machine that Cope and Fillon have, the same sources note, younger UMP members may come to her because she symbolizes the future and not the past and like Estaing, a former finance minister without a machine, and he went on to be president. 

Having captivated conservatives in the U.S., Sarkozy made it clear last night he is through with politics.  Now the question is: “Who’s next?”  It won’t be an easy one nor one answered quickly, as Socialists soon assume power in Paris.


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