Monday, June 1, 2015

Meet the Republicans

Nicolas Sarkozy has made good on his promise to rebaptize the battered, beleaguered, broke, and discredited UMP "the Republicans." The Republic, said Adolphe Thiers, is the regime that divides us the least, but the Republicans have been born divided. "It's more than a glitch," said Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (I love to write that name!). "For me, it's the resurgence of the old party. That's not what the Republicans should be!"

Indeed not, but how could they be otherwise? There has been no rethinking of the party's ideology since 2012, no reckoning with its corrupt practices (J.-F. Copé, who was at the heart of the corruption, appears alongside Eric Woerth and Brice Hortefeux in a photo of the event--and of course Sarkozy, still under investigation in numerous affairs, is the party leader), and no generational renewal (although Bruno Le Maire has made such renewal the premise of his bid for the presidential nomination).

The sham reinvention of the UMP reveals the contradiction at the heart of France's major political parties. On the one hand they are vehicles of personal ambition and must become cults of personality molded anew around each presidential candidate at five-year intervals. On the other hand they are, as the French like to say, "political families," loose coalitions of individuals who share certain precepts of government. As Alain Juppé boldly proclaimed when booed by a fair proportion of the La Villette audience, "This is my political family, and I will remain part of it no matter what." The problem is that what joins Juppé to the family is no longer clear, now that the family has been remade in the image of Sarkozy.

The audience also booed François Fillon, who has become, among certain Sarkozystes, the bouc émissaire for their hero's failures as president. Fillon is in a tough spot. As ex-prime minister, he can't run away from policy failure as easily as the ex-president can. "Presidential" is a free-floating signifier for the mix of ideology and personality that is supposed to capture the mood of the electorate. In order to be presidential in 2007, Sarkozy made himself reformist, neoliberal, pro-European, and pro-American; his pugnacity came naturally. To be presidential in 2012, Hollande portrayed himself as anti-Sarkozyste, anti-finance, and "normal." To be presidential in 2017, Sarkozy has begun to underscore his nationalism, secularism, anti-liberalism, and anti-"mediocrity" while soft-pedaling the (all too irrepressible) pugnacity (as he tried to do, only partially successfully, in an interview on France2 last night).

In that interview, the most bathetic passage was surely the one in which the former president tried to elicit a tear of sympathy for Eric Woerth's five years of tribulations with the courts. Although the charges against him were dismissed, Woerth hardly emerged unscathed from the saga, and in any case the dismissal of charges against Woerth doesn't affect Sarkozy's various legal entanglements, even though the ex-pres artfully sought to transform the judgment into exoneration of himself, the ultimate martyr of Woerth's persecutors. The sorrows of young Woerth reflect the vaulting ambitions of wily old Sarkozy.