Paris attacks: Sarkozy shifts right with swipe at multiculturalism

Nicolas Sarkozy has a plan for national recovery after the deadliest Islamist terror attacks on French soil: bring back “eternal France”.

At the centre-right opposition leader’s first political rally since Isis assailants murdered 130 people in Paris earlier this month, the former French president told supporters in Alsace, eastern France, on Wednesday, that multiculturalism is what has made western democracies vulnerable to Islamist extremists.

“France is not a supermarket, it’s a whole,” Mr Sarkozy said to the overcrowded room in the small Alsatian town of Schiltigheim. “There is no French identity, no happy identity in a multicultural society.”

For Mr Sarkozy reviving la France de toujours goes well beyond emergency powers for the police or tough border checks, as instigated by socialist president François Hollande. It means everything from fighting “cultural conformism” caused by unbridled globalisation to restoring homework, standards and discipline to schools.

Squeezed between a rebounding Mr Hollande and a resurgent National Front (FN), the anti-immigration party led by Marine Le Pen, Mr Sarkozy has opted to veer to the right. It is a strategy reminiscent of his presidential campaign in 2012, when he was defeated by Mr Hollande.

Ten days before the first round of regional elections in which the FN is expected to make a historic breakthrough — and 18 months before the next presidential poll — Mr Sarkozy’s speech highlights his struggle to project a distinctive voice at time when the entire French political scene has shifted to the right.

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Politically, Mr Sarkozy’s party, Les Républicains, has emerged as the loser in relative terms from the Paris atrocity. The attacks have amplified fears about Islam and immigration, giving Ms Le Pen a boost.
Mr Hollande’s approval ratings have surged by between 7 and 17 percentage points in various polls. Once the most unpopular president in the history of the fifth republic, he is back to approval levels that took him to the Elysée Palace in 2012.

The tough security and military stance he and prime minister Manuel Valls have adopted in the last two weeks — sweeping investigative powers for the police under a three-month state of emergency, intensified air strikes in Syria — has deprived the right of some of its favourite themes.

Meanwhile, national shock and grief has made it hard to press the charge that not enough had been done to counter the jihadi threat following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine in January.

For the first time, a poll, by Harris Interactive, showed the socialist party beating Les Républicains and the centrists in next month’s regional elections, although the FN is projected to come first in terms of votes, with 27 per cent.

There are signs that conservative voters are shifting to the far right in enough numbers to give the FN its first ever victories in some regions — such as Provence, where Marion Marechal-Le Pen, Ms Le Pen’s 25-year old niece, is the lead candidate. Ms Le Pen is leading in Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

The fact that the FN opposed European Parliament legislation setting up an EU-wide registry of air passenger data, and a French law passed this summer increasing the surveillance powers of intelligence services does not seem to dent its support.

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“Mr Hollande’s popularity surge may be shortlived,” said Bruno Cautrès, a professor at Sciences Po university. “The centre right may be able to win eight of France’s 13 regions allowing Mr Sarkozy to say ‘mission accomplished’ in difficult conditions,” Mr Cautrès added. “But if not, if the economy picks up again, whatever the strategy, either leaning to the conservative right, or to the centre, the centre-right is squeezed. That’s the new three-party reality of French politics.”

France’s regional governments run local transport and some parts of the school system, not the police or intelligence services. But next year’s elections will still serve as a test of Mr Sarkozy’s national appeal and strategy as opposition leader before primaries next year to choose a centre-right presidential candidate.

“If the FN achieves better than expected scores and if the socialists manage to limit the beating, this will be tougher for him to convince party members to back him,” Mr Bouvet said. “Rivals including former prime ministers Alain Juppé and François Fillon will feel buoyed.”

In Schiltigheim, Evelyne Mercey, a family business owner and Sarkozy fan, praised the former president’s speech, adding it was time to “take on the fanatics” and “stop the delinquency of French society”.

But there were also sceptics about Mr Sarkozy’s identity politics.
“This ‘France de toujours’, it’s not really my thing,” said Jean-Philippe Vetter, a member of the mayoral council of Strasbourg. “There is no such thing. Generation after generation, there are always people telling us it was better before.”

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