Both Nathalie Koscuisko-Morizet and Bruno Le Maire abstained in the recent vote for the Equal Marriage Bill before the French National Assembly. Both explained their reasons as being less about equal rights for gay couples (which both profess to support) but more about issues to do with children’s rights and the issue of the use of the word “marriage”. Both of course are vulnerable to arguments that children’s rights are traditionally only separated from parents’ rights in the case of dangerous parents (ergo, a gay parent is a dangerous parent…) and the “separate but equal” status for gay couples is simply offensive.
But both profess to be the modern, progressive wing of the UMP conservative right. They have joined forces before, claiming that the confrontation between François Fillon and Jean-François Copé in the battle for the leadership of the UMP would be destructive. They were of course right.
But the war on the right shows no signs of subsiding. Given this backdrop of bitter infighting, what are their chances of breaking through and forming the new opposition to the Socialist government?
Opposing but Existing
We’ve looked at these two politicians before in our review of the candidates to lead the UMP, but firmly relegated them to the second division. Both are now seeking a higher public profile, trying to exist in a media environment where opposition figures need to fight to be heard.
NKM for Paris?
NKM (her unwieldy Polish-originated aristocratic name is shortened by the French media) has for some time sought the next challenge. A competent, if somewhat authoritarian, Environment Minister in the last half of the Sarkozy administration, her political line has always been more centrist that the headbangers of the party. She has been particularly hostile towards the Front National, firmly rejecting any idea of an alliance, tacit or otherwise, with the party she denounced in a book as the anti-social Front. This puts her in opposition to the Copé wing of the party who is suspicious of what they see as fudging tough issues under the guise of centrism.
Sarkozy’s fondness for NKM was confirmed when he conferred on her the role of his spokesperson during the campaign. Accepting at the pleasure of the President, she has been open about finding this role uncomfortable and constraining, and since the election of François Hollande, she has attracted headlines with sharp repliques against the Hollande administration’s policies, style and communication, although she maintains close relations with the former President who seems to respect her frank style (perhaps recognising an element of his own attitude to blunt speaking in her).
Bright Lights, Big City
And then came Paris. Sensing that François Fillon, who many suspected had been parachuted into Paris in the legislative elections to tee himself up for a run at the mayoralty would choose to focus on 2017 rather than 2014, she began to put out feelers. As the mayor of Longjumeau, a usually-safe seat for the right (but which voted for François Hollande in 2012 by a sizable majority) to the south of Paris in the shadow of Orly Airport, she has a stronger link to the capital than Fillon (whose partisans incredibly claimed that having lived in Paris as Prime Minister he had enough of a local connection to make a run). She also is the poster child for the bobo centre left middle and upper class, particularly due to her credibility on green issues. Her abstention on equal marriage was key to retaining this outwardly-socially liberal but strangely traditionally-minded constituency.
She however lacks the common touch, a factor that her chief competitor on the right, Rachida Dati, never fails to make. Her aristocratic background has also been clumsily noted by her competitor on the left, Anne Hidalgo. More on her another time.
Paris is an odd election though. Rather than one city wide ballot, each of the 20 arrondissement elects its council separately, then sending those councilors to the central Paris council which votes for the Mayor overall. The political makeup of Paris means that in reality, only a few arrondissements are in play: the mini-swing states of the 12th and the 14th primarily, the rest being firmly in the left or the right camps. NKM has promised that when she moves to Paris, she will go the the 12th or 14th (probably the 12th given that it is more likely to swing her way) and lead the charge there. She will probably face an open primary for the UMP candidacy, facing off with Rachida Dati. Then she takes the fight to Hidalgo.
In any event, she will be a leading figure of the right at the worst until March 2014. After that, who knows?
The Gentleman Farmer
Bruno Le Maire is a politician in search of himself. Lacking a clear challenge in the short term, instead Le Maire has become the thinking man of the right. He underwhelmed in government, being a largely invisible Agriculture Minister, during the latter half of the Sarkozy Administration, and his dour tone renders him a dull politician to watch, even when going head to head with firebrands like Marine Le Pen, as he did last week on national television.
He has been touring the TV studios recently, pushing his latest book which is a political diary of the last 2 years of the Sarkozy era. He presents himself as a normal, well rounded (and well-read) politician. He clearly loved the intricacies of his agricultural brief (something of a rarity for Agriculture Ministers in any country). He is an eager father, guilty about the little amount of time he spends with his children. He conveys a clear frustration about the interminable time wasted in airplanes waiting to travel from here to there. He also betrays a fascination for the exercise of power, a clinical ambition (which, to be fair, one imagines is rather a necessity for that profession) rather than policy, and puts the boot in to many of his colleagues. President Sarkozy in particular comes across as venal, conceited, distracted and vindictive. Le Maire writes in the foreward of his admiration for the man, that developed over time, but it is clear that he in no way worships him like the Friends of Sarkozy seem still to do.
The book is selling well thanks to Le Maire’s media campaign, but also some good reviews. It is also rather beautifully written in places (Le Maire is a serious man of letters) and therefore benefits from a literary aura absent from other politicos’ books.
Le Maire flirted with the idea of running for the Presidency of the UMP in 2012 – he didn’t because he realised that he would never be able to peel off the necessary support. His book opens with the disappointment that he was not given the Finance brief in the cabinet reshuffle in 2010, again because there was simply not enough support within the rank and file to justify it. His low public profile also requires him to broaden his appeal, such as he has done with his abstention on equal marriage: his is the humanist side of the UMP.
And yet the whiff of technocracy hangs ever-present round Le Maire; his political upbringing is pure bred French political elite, with the Ecole Normale Supérieure, ENA and a role as a backroom boy for former Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin.
This is his project for the next four years: to destroy the image of the man of grey. His problem is that he would appear to have no obvious outlet for this, other than sniping from the opposition as a second rank figure (the man you get in when Fillon, Copé or NKM are booked). His seat in parliament gives him legitimacy, but he will face no particular electoral test, unless he allies himself with either Fillon or Copé.
Whilst NKM is fighting to win, Le Maire is fighting to exist.