Since returning to the helm of the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), six months ago, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been looking for ways to distract the nation from the divisive appeal of Marine Le Pen’s National Front, from the small triumphs of what is otherwise a desperately unpopular Socialist administration, and from an accumulating pile of lawsuits, reports The New Yorker.
His party’s victory in regional elections in March was a good start, which he helped along by flirting with the far-right National Front’s electorate, promising that, in line with French values, all public-school students would be required to eat pork for lunch. But his latest move is his most virtuosic yet: he is changing the name of the party. Sarkozy’s new outfit will be called “Les Républicains.”
For the UMP, a name change is not an unorthodox play—the party has done it five times in the past seventy years. In 1947, Charles de Gaulle founded the Rassemblement du Peuple Français (RPF), the blueprint for the modern conservative party, which has taken on a new name about once a decade, as party leaders have attempted to consolidate power and occasionally distance themselves from scandal. Sarkozy’s motivation is, in part, an affair that has become known as Bygmalion, in which eleven million euros in false invoices were billed to the UMP to hide overspending on Sarkozy’s unsuccessful reëlection campaign. Bygmalion forced the previous UMP leader, Jean-François Copé, to step down, but it somehow hasn’t yet definitely touched Sarkozy. Since de Gaulle, French conservatives have rallied under three anodyne terms that yield three-letter acronyms (de Gaulle’s RPF and UNR, Jacques Chirac’s RPR and UMP). A conservative splinter group called the Parti Républicain was founded in the nineteen-seventies, but for mainstream conservatism Sarkozy is opting for a radical break.
“Why do I hold tight to the word ‘Republic’?” Sarkozy asked during a speech in Nice, in April. “Because each one among us here today must know what he owes to the Republic. And the difference between the left and us is that the left is Socialist first, and then Republican; we are Republicans first, then Gaullist, liberal, centrist, radical. It’s a big difference,” he said, finishing with an authoritative flourish of the hand. This is immaculate posturing on Sarkozy’s part—far-right voters know that the idea of putting the Republic first speaks to their concerns about the changing face of France, while the phrasing allows Sarkozy to avoid charged and xenophobic invocations of “national identity.”
The difficulty, for Sarkozy, is that any graduate of L’Éducation Nationale can tell you what it means to be a subject of the French Republic—that is, a Republican—and Sarkozy’s attempt to appropriate the term has been viewed as a violation of the social pact, even by members of the UMP. “By definition, the Republic gathers together people who have different conceptions of the general interest, but who identify with something greater,” Edouard Philippe, a UMP deputy who is allied with one of Sarkozy’s interparty rivals, told Libération.