Who Will Be the New Face of the French Right? Part I: Jean-François Copé

What does it mean to be “on the right”? In France, this question has long been debated. The great political scientist René Rémond famously saw the right in France as torn between a series of apparently contradictory positions: secularism and clericalism, authoritarianism and liberalism, statism and anti-statism. In recent decades, the French right has seemed similarly fractured, in ways that both perpetuate and depart from its earlier cleavages. It can espouse free-market capitalism but also “economic patriotism,” European integration as well as national sovereignty, republican tolerance but also rabid xenophobia. In particular, the French right has been dogged by the persistent problem of its relationship with the National Front (Front national, or FN). Does the Le Pen family party ultimately share many of the mainstream right’s values, only expressing them in more virulent terms? Or is the FN’s identity sui generis, as distinct from the center right as the latter is from the left?

Whither the Post-Sarkozy Right?

The question of the right’s political identity will inevitably be one of the questions that France’s major center-right party, the UMP, confronts as it prepares to choose a new leader this November. Nicolas Sarkozy’s defeat by François Hollande in the presidential election last May—the first defeat of an incumbent president since 1981—left the right in disarray, particularly since it promptly lost its parliamentary majority in subsequent legislative elections. Not only is a socialist president for the first time since 1995, but his party also controls most of France’s elected offices. In addition to the presidency, the government, and the National Assembly, the socialists have a majority in the Senate and control twenty-one out of twenty-two metropolitan regional councils, most departmental councils, and many major cities. Rarely in modern French history has the mainstream right found itself excluded from power at so many levels.

Outflanked on its left, the UMP also has every reason to fear the challenge from its right. Marine Le Pen finished a strong third in the first round of the presidential elections, winning 17.90% of the vote). The FN also performed surprisingly well in the parliamentary elections, despite the obstacles the electoral system poses to her troops. The relationship between the mainstream right and the far right has now reached a critical juncture: some in the UMP want their party to lurch further to the right, while Marine Le Pen’s strategy of “de-diabolizing” the FN makes some her acolytes long (despite official rhetoric to the contrary) for the legitimacy that an alliance with the UMP would offer. At a time when the FN has promised to rally the opposition to Hollande’s government (in a climate that budget cuts and the ongoing Eurozone crisis makes highly volatile), the question of a possible UMP-FN rapprochement is certain to be vigorously debated in the months ahead.

Finally, the implosion of François Bayrou’s centrist party, the MoDem, both electorally and institutionally, further complicates the right’s prospects. Can the UMP plausibly appeal to the MoDem’s electorate, which tends to be pro-European and socially liberal, while at the same time making overtures to the far right? Will the MoDem reassert itself or, alternatively, be replaced by a new and genuinely centrist force?

In any case, the immediate decision that the UMP faces is that of choosing a new leader at the November party conference. As expected, the race is now a horserace between the current party leader, Jean-François Copé, and Sarkozy’s prime minister, François Fillon. The former favors an “uninhibited right,” bringing the UMP into the mainstream of European conservatism, even as he bats his eyes at Marine Le Pen. François Fillon, however, is committed to preserving at least some aspects of the party’s heritage, espousing the tradition of “social Gaullism” while pursuing a pragmatic policy of preserving France’s political and economic stature against the onslaught of globalization. Below, I will consider the alternative that Jean-François Copé represents, before portraying Fillon in a later post.

From Copelovici to Copé

Jean-François Copé fancies himself Nicolas Sarkozy’s heir. This makes sense, as the two men share a distinctive political profile: both are Frenchmen of immigrant origins who are fond of professing their deep attachment to French national identity—even (and perhaps especially) when this involves stigmatizing immigrants.

Jean-François Copé

Like Sarkozy, Copé’s origins lie not in la France profonde, but in the multicultural world of early twentieth-century Eastern Europe. “Copé” was initially “Copelovici,” the name of Jean-François’ Romanian grandfather, a Bessarabian Jew who arrived in France in 1926, fleeing anti-Semitism in his homeland. He became a doctor, as did Copé’s father, Roland Copé, a renowned proctologist. Jean-François’ mother, Monique Ghanassia, was born in Algeria to a family of middle-class Jews of Tunisian origin. She left the former colony at the beginning of the F.L.N.’s insurrection, arriving in France where she worked in Copé père’s clinic as his assistant. She opposed de Gaulle’s Algerian policy; her husband supported it. Jean-François was born in 1964, in the comfortable Parisian suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt.

Copé attended the semi-private Ecole Active Bilingue in Paris’ fifteenth arrondissement, where classes are taught in both French and English. As a result, he masters the latter better than most French politicians. He then followed the golden road of a French career politician: first Sciences Po, then the ENA, where he ranked a relatively unimpressive 35th place in 1989’s “Liberté-égalité-fraternité” graduating class (each of which picks its own distinctive name).

Though a political career always seemed Copé’s end goal, he cultivated an interest in the business world that is not particularly common among French politicians, even on the right. Specifically, he found himself at the intersections of the private and public sector. He attended seminars in the US on a practice known as the “new public management,” a movement that sought to introduce business models into public administration. He worked for the Caisse des dépôts et consignations, a kind of state-run investment bank, as well as for Dexia, a Franco-Belgian bank that is active in public finance (which has recently collapsed as a result of the current Eurozone crisis). Recently, he became a lawyer—not by attending law school, but through a procedure known as “validation of professional experience” (“validation des acquis de l’expérience,” or VAE). Not surprisingly, he used this credential to get work with a top corporate law firm, Gide Loyrette Nouel.

While Copé has presented himself as Sarkozy’s heir, the politician to whom he hitched his star earlier in his career was Jacques Chirac, the former Paris mayor who dominated the center right from the early 1980s until his election as president in 1995. In the early nineties, Copé was part of Chirac’s reflection group on economic ideas (which was chaired by Sarkozy). When many of Chirac’s former supporters—including Sarkozy and Fillon—betrayed him, casting their lot with Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, Copé’s loyalty was unflinching. After Chirac was elected to the Élysée, Copé, still in his early thirties, was rewarded with a series of party positions. He also worked for Prime Minister Alain Juppé, la chiraquie’s high priest. He later held a number of ministerial portfolios in the Raffarin and Villepin governments, including government spokesman and budget minister. Following Sarkozy’s election in 2007, he presided over the UMP’s parliamentary caucus in the National Assembly, before being elected to the run the party itself—the position that he is now in effect seeking reelection (though technically, he is current the party’s secretary-general and is aspiring to be its president).

Copé and the “Uninhibited Right”

France’s Threatened Identity

Despite a fairly extensive background in economic affairs, Copé is not making this experience the centerpiece of his leadership campaign. Instead, he is taking a page from Sarkozy’s book and delving into the murky waters of France’s national identity debate. In one recent speech, Copé spoke of a mother’s exasperation, coming home after a long day at work, in learning that her child’s pain au chocolat had been grabbed from him at school by “thugs” declaring: “you don’t eat during Ramadan.” In his campaign manifesto, he tells of a story from Meaux, the distant Paris suburb where Copé has been mayor on and off since 1995. A woman learns that her son’s game console has been stolen from Arab neighbors in her apartment bloc. When she tries to retrieve it, she is greeted with contempt: “If you don’t like it, la Gauloise (‘Frenchy’), then get lost.”

Copé concludes: “An ‘anti-white racism’ is developing in our cities’ neighborhoods where some individuals—some of whom are French citizens—scorn French people whom they describe as ‘Gauls,’ on the pretext that they have a different religion, skin color, or origins.” One way he would fight this phenomenon is by restoring authority in schools, notably by introducing uniforms and random drug tests (the results of which, he believes, should be communicated solely to parents, not to the authorities).

On this basis, Copé calls for “an uninhibited right” (une droite décomplexée)—a right that, as he puts it, “fearlessly affirms what it is, what it loves, what it wants” and which is “republican, modern, and liberated from political correctness.” The term “uninhibited right” is interesting. It accurately refers to the asymmetry between how the French left and right relate to their own identities: those who are on the left often strongly identify themselves as such, to the point of fetishizing the word—“la gaucheitself, making it central to their personal identity. Partisans of the French right are far less inclined to this kind of self-identification. They invoke other words to express their values: the “nation,” “authority,” or “tradition.” Part of the reason is that the very distinction between “left” and “right,” born in France’s revolutionary assemblies, was driven by the left’s self-affirmation: the rise of a movement that made revolution and social change the order of the day is what ultimately compelled conservatives to see themselves as on the “right.”

Roland Copé as Pétain

Another reason why the French right has been reluctant to describe itself as such is Vichy: since 1944, the right has often had a patina of illegitimacy cast over it, making it difficult to defend itself, precisely, without inhibitions. This is what makes yet another peculiar quirk in Copé’s family life all the more astonishing. His father, Roland Copé, has pursued a side-career in acting alongside his medical practice. In 2010, he was awarded a role in a film called The Round-Up (La Rafle), a fictionalized account of the notorious July 1942 “Vel d’Hiv Round-Up” when the French police arrested some 13,000 Jews before sending them to death camps in the East. Who does Copé père play? None other than Vichy incarnate, Philippe Pétain himself. It is as if Rick Santorum’s dad were cast to play George Wallace in a movie just as his son hit the campaign trail attacking affirmative action. Only maybe worse.

I don’t mean to suggest there is something necessarily wrong with Roland Copé playing Pétain, or that it in anyway suggests hidden sympathies for Vichy. This clearly is not true, not least because Roland Copé actually remembers what being a Jew during the Occupation was like. He recalls how in 1943 his family, then living in Paris, was warned of a round-up in their building just in time to be hidden by a neighbor. He describes himself as “in love with France” and says he will never forget “these simple French people who saved the lives of thousands.”

In Copé’s case, however, “uninhibited” quickly becomes a rationalization for the kind of incivility and intolerance that has so often characterized the darkest chapters of the French right. Say what you want about Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Robert Brasillach, and Jean-Marie Le Pen; at the very least, they were “uninhibited.”

For now, it seems like Copé’s strategy boils down to making inroads into the FN’s electorate, while giving solace to those within the UMP who sympathize with the far right. This may be one reason why he supports letting independent caucuses (or “courants”) to emerge within the UMP, as occurs often in leftist parties: recently, a number of elected officials within the UMP formed a group called the “droite populaire” (the “Populist Right”), which advocates precisely the kind of uninhibited right that Copé supports.

Nadia and Jean-François Copé

Nadia and Jean-François Copé

The paradox of Copé is the fact that his personal identity seems so at odds with his political stance. As if his family history were not complicated enough, his romantic life adds another twist to the story: Copé recently married a child psychologist named Nadia Hamama, though she more recently used the name of her first husband, d’Alincourt (the marriage is also Copé’s second). Though I did not find any very reliable information about her online, it would seem that Nadia d’Alincourt is of mixed Italian and Kabyl descent. During the recent legislative campaign, Nadia Copé remarked: “I am a little shocked by what has been said about my husband. My name is Nadia, my brother is called Karim. My husband would not have married me if he was racist!”

At some level, this must almost certainly be true. With his Jewish, Romanian, and North African background, Copé embodies a certain idea of multicultural France. His earlier career seemed to suggest that entrepreneurship and the free market were destined to be the guiding principles of his politics, rather than identity. Yet he is basing his campaign for the UMP leadership on the kind of ethnically tinged politics that the Le Pens and, in his own way, Sarkozy learned to master. Like republicans on the left as well as the right, Copé will argue that his background is precisely what makes him a staunch defender of French identity—that he is grateful for the way the Copelovicis, the Ghanassias, and the Hamamas actually became French, and that failure to integrate is the reason why Arab kids cling to Islam and pick on little “gaulois.” But he is playing with fire. Some far-righters are throwing Copé’s own rhetoric of French identity back into his face, crudely joking about a Romanian Jew who would rule this “old Gallo-Roman country” (to quote the anti-Semite Xavier Vallat’s notorious remarks about Léon Blum). In many ways, Copé’s background would make him a welcome and interesting figure to France’s rather homogeneous political class. Yet he also seems like the most dangerous choice before the UMP, and the one most likely to distract it from addressing the deeper problems the country is facing. After all, there are ways of letting go of your inhibitions that, in the long run, only make you more neurotic.

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One response to “Who Will Be the New Face of the French Right? Part I: Jean-François Copé

  1. Thank you Professor Behrent for this clearsighted insight into current French politics.
    Tampering with scapegoat policies to con racially-biased voters into supporting leaders, who, once elected, sheerly implement more free-market policies, is definetely fashionable around here.
    Do you have any data about Coppé’s links with corporate France?
    What does the far-right say about corporate France? Maybe they merely prefer corporate France to corporate America?
    Incidentally, the current self-proclaimed socialists look as though they used the anti-racist ideas of the left… to sheerly implement more free-market policies as well. The right, here and elsewhere keeps claiming France is a kind of new Cuba, which is utterly wrong. We simply keep getting more free-market policies.
    Meanwhile, the earth-climate is changing, the glaciers are melting, and most political parties on either side of the political spectrum keep their fingers crossed for more growth… to go ahead in our global suicide process.
    In that case, focusing on Frenchness, or in other places on Americanness, to cope with the major threats looming ahead seems to be totally irrelevant.

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