Well, with the summer party universitÃ©s d’Ã©tÃ© done and everyone going back to work, the run-in begins in earnest to the French presidential election. This shows every sign of being very interesting indeed. After all, it’s the biggest direct mandate for any politician in Europe and the second-biggest in the whole democratic world (I exclude Russia because whatever it is, it ain’t democracy), so it ought to be worth watching anyway. This one is especially interesting, though, as everyone has a lot to prove.
The Socialists are desperate to recover from the disaster of 2002 and regain some power. Whether they can do this, and how they do it, is going to be a bellwether for the Left throughout the world. Inside the party, there is a whole world of bitter conflict to work out. The extreme-left is desperately trying to unite, in the hope of capitalising on the victory against the CPE and eventually getting some tangible results from their combined 12-15 per cent of the first round vote. After all, whatever they hoped to achieve, you can be sure that a Chirac-Le Pen runoff wasn’t it.
On the Right, there is an even more savage internal struggle in progress. The blue-eyed boy, Nicolas Sarkozy, is lining up for the final straight with his bid to bring something eerily like Tony Blair to France – free markets and mass surveillance – whilst Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin still hopes to seize the succession to Jacques Chirac. This overlays the old distinction between the Gaullists and the “classical right”. But what’s this?
One year ago, the former Prime Minister and mayor of Bordeaux, not to mention president of the RPR, Alain JuppÃ©, had just been disgraced and banned from public life for one year. His crime was his part in a scheme to place hordes of RPR apparatchiks on the payroll of the city of Paris, in which Chirac was himself deeply implicated. Now he’s back. The entire rightwing membership of the Bordeaux city council has just resigned, and no-one was surprised when he promptly announced his candidature.
Now, JuppÃ© is a man close to Chirac’s heart – Chirac once called him one of the most brilliant men of his generation, and he’s a Gaullist into the bargain. The clear inference is that the palace would like JuppÃ© back in the field as a more credible candidate against Sarkozy than de Villepin, a man wounded by the CPE crisis and the Clearstream scandal. Sarko has supposedly offered JuppÃ© the presidency of the National Assembly in exchange for his support, with a suggestion of help in the 2012 presidential election. But the Chirac camp is signalling confidence in JuppÃ©’s loyalty. So much so that you might even think they had prior knowledge, not to mention a file on him.
JuppÃ©’s return faces only one obstacle, the little matter of getting elected. The Bordelais will go to the polls in October to elect a mayor, and the whole strategy hinges on this. Bordeaux is a traditionally conservative city, though. But the Left might be well advised to make an extraordinary effort to unhinge him at this early juncture – against Sarko, they can count on a powerful self-mobilisation effect. Like Blair – or Thatcher – a large fraction of the population hates him passionately. JuppÃ© would be a very different figure.
There is, though, that corruption conviction, and there’s many a slip between cup and lip. It remains possible that De Villepin – who seems boosted by the French role in the Lebanon crisis and the economic upturn – may fight on. And the old fella himself might not be out of it. Jacques Chirac changed the constitution to reduce the presidential term from 7 to 5 years. But that’s 5 years renewable. It used to be 7 years, twice. He still hasn’t ruled out the option of running again, himself…