Are the Republicans a centre-right party?

Nicolas Sarkozy’s defeat in the first round of the Republican primary last Sunday prompted a surge in international press coverage. The BBC announced that “centrist Francois Fillon” was now poised to win the primary. The Economist reported the results of a “centre-right” vote. French voters, meanwhile, read the headlines and shook their heads.

For in France, centre-right is something the Republicans are not. To understand why, we need to have a look at recent history.

1. The Old guard: Gaullisme and Chiraquisme

For a long time, the French political barycentre had a reputation of being to the left of the American and British ones. For a long time, it was true too.

In 1958, pulling a Churchill and coming back to politics after a few years’ retirement following his victory in WWII, General De Gaulle established a new French Republic.

He was, in a way, the direct successor of XIXth century French monarchs who believed the State had an important role to play in protecting its people and increasing the country’s strength and prestige. Thus De Gaulle set the foundations for an independent, sovereign France, with a flexible approach to economy and a socially conscious streak.

When De Gaulle left power, his successors stuck with gaullist ideas but transformed them to accommodate the pro-european, internationally open vision inherited from the French 20’s. They also adopted economic liberalism as a party tenet. Both mutations eventually solidified inside the RPR, Jacques Chirac’s party, which would stand as the French right-wing force from 1977 to 2002.

The RPR’s defence of an economically liberal, socially aware, internationally open approach prompted foreign commentators to describe it as a centre-right party.

2. Unifying the French Right

Jacques Chirac was first elected President in 1995 but his mandate resulted in a political deadlock. The Socialist won the 1997 parliamentary elections and took charge of all policy decisions. To avoid a bis repetita, Chirac proposed a reform of the electoral schedule through a referendum that garnered broad support.

Starting in 2002, the presidential and parliamentary election schedules became aligned. To make sure right-wing parties would have a big enough majority in the Parliament, a new super-party was created: the UMP.

The UMP united most right-wing parties (including Chirac’s RPR) and a chunk of the centre-right. It took in currents going from christian conservatives to economic liberals through parties whose candidates had regional ties with Front National candidates.

But the presidential election brought a shattering development. The Socialist candidate was eliminated in the first round, leaving Jacques Chirac to face Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s even further-right father.

Chirac was reelected by a very broad margin but with reduced legitimacy. The wound left by the Le Pen catastrophe opened up some room within the UMP for an alternative, and Nicolas Sarkozy moved to occupy it.

3. The Sarkozy experience

The Front National’s success in 2002 demonstrated that a sizeable chunk of French voters were feeling disenfranchised. Nicolas Sarkozy took it upon him to appeal to those voters.

During his tour as Minister of the Interior then of the Economy, he built for himself a reputation of a man of action, a “strong hand”, able to make the right decisions in favour of the hard-working French people against the unemployed suburban youth and the immigrant population. He campaigned on those themes in 2007 and won.

That victory pushed the UMP further to the right, prompting the centre-right members of the coalition to leave the party and assemble under a different banner.

In the years following his election, Nicolas Sarkozy made good on his promise to radicalise French politics. In fact, many of his policies would have found favour with the Tories or the American Republicans: stringent austerity reforms, punitive judicial laws with increased prison time and lowered tolerance, international policies based on military intervention (he sent over 80 aircrafts to Libya).

Francois Fillon was Prime Minister during all of that presidency.

4. The new currents of French conservatism

Today’s Republicans are an evolution of the UMP, a rebranding decided by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2015 to demonstrate his return to power.

There are three main currents competing within the Republicans.

The first one is made up of Sarkozy’s supporters. It advocates in favour of Sarkozy’s pet projects: maximum security, anti-immigration, repression rather than prevention, economic austerity. The trouble is that those themes are now shared by everyone, from Hollande’s current government to the Front National, while Sarkozy has a reputation of being a President for the media, all flash and no substance. That is one explanation of his losing last Sunday.

The second current is a hard-right resurgence of old gaullist trends. Alain Juppé, a former PM of Chirac, leads it. Classically, he supports economic liberalism in the shape of increased working hours, delayed retirement and the State’s partial disengagement from ecology. He has shifted strongly to Chirac’s right in matters such as increased policing and security. However, he does plead for a national union and has hinted at an opening towards the centre-right.

The third and most conservative current is represented by Francois Fillon. Coming from a rural catholic background, Fillon calls for the same measures as Juppé but goes further in many areas (taxes, working hours, security or ecology). He adds to it a strong emphasis on traditional French catholic values, which put abortion under question, exclude LGBT families and come head-butt with islamic cultures. He has recently started promoting increased French sovereignty.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency, Francois Hollande’s policies (many of which would fall under the right-wing definition) and the increased popularity of the Front National have all contributed to shift the Republican party to the right. Some voters deplore it while others have finally found in it a reflection of their beliefs. In any case, calling the Republicans “centre-right” is ignoring the last 15 years of French politics.

In the next post, we’ll have a closer look at the differences between our two remaining right-wing candidates.