On a recent summer morning, Alain Juppé is visiting Roger André, a butcher in the town of Perpignan, to sample his pâté. After each bite, Juppé purrs with pleasure and commends the butcher with nods of approval.
The thermometer shows more than 30 degrees Celsius, yet Juppé is wearing a dark suit with a patterned tie. He hasn't even taken off his jacket. He is surrounded by his advisers and local politicians, all men and all of them wearing suits, except for his personal photographer and two journalists from a local radio station.
Juppé and his entourage are touring the Departement Pyrénées-Orientales, France's southernmost tip on the Spanish border. "Visiting the market" is on the day's agenda, though the market is no more than four stands in front of a police station. There are hardly any passersby and Juppé and his men represent a majority of the visitors.
Alain Juppé is the mayor of Bordeaux and is the most promising candidate from his party, Les Républicains, when the French go to the polls next year to elect a new president. In the primaries this November, the 71-year-old wants to finally achieve what he failed to do for so many years: be chosen by the French conservative party as its presidential nominee. And then be elected president. Juppé has been in politics for nearly half a century and things have never looked better for him.
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, likewise from Les Républicains, also announced his candidacy for the primaries this week, but polls suggest that 80 percent of French people are uninterested in having him lead their country again. Voters prefer Juppé, and they like him even more than the incumbent, French President Francois Hollande, and the right-wing populist candidate Marine Le Pen. Their unpopularity is Juppé's chance.
He has been on the road for months now, visiting recycling centers in Le Puy-en-Velay and women's associations in Bretagne. He has even flown to the overseas territories of New Caledonia and French Polynesia to present his platform to voters there. That, in fact, is why Juppé is now at a butcher's stand sampling pâté. It doesn't bother him that the market is nearly empty: Juppé isn't the kind of person who enjoys shaking hands or patting people's shoulders.
'Best Among Us'
The butcher shakes his head as Juppé and his men in black disappear. Roger André, 55, is a friendly, corpulent man. "He's not going to save us and he won't help us either," André says of Juppé. "He's part of the old guard. What this country needs is for the younger generation to take the helm."
Alain Juppé was once prime minister and party chairman. He has also headed up the foreign, budget and environment ministries at various times. But there's one thing he has never been: particularly popular. As a graduate of France's best schools, he has always been regarded as highly intelligent -- and highly arrogant. His former mentor, Jacques Chirac, referred to him as "the best among us."
Reluctant campaigner Alain Juppé on the trail in JuneFoto: JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/ AFP
Despite his good election prospects, there's still something sad about Juppé. He's been leading national polls for months, yet he still seems like a man of the past, like a symbol of the difficulty his country is facing in renewing both itself and its cadre of elites. In the late 1970s, Juppé began working for Jacques Chirac, who was prime minister at the time. He was promoted to his first ministerial post in 1986 and became prime minister in 1995. In 1997, he was forced to resign in the face of massive protests against his attempted reforms and was regarded as one of the least popular prime ministers of the Fifth Republic.
Juppé's current popularity can primarily be attributed to desperation. There are simply no better options.
The current president, Francois Hollande, has little chance of re-election. He's even more unpopular today than his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy was when he was ousted in 2012. Still, both Hollande and Sarkozy appear to want nothing more than to face off against one another one more time. Each of them seems convinced that popular aversion to the other is greater than their own unpopularity. Should such a political rematch come to pass, the greatest beneficiary would be Marine Le Pen, who is already rubbing her hands with delight behind the scenes.
As such, Juppé's candidacy is a significant source of irritation. It's an inconvenience for Hollande, because the incumbent wants to position himself as a moderate, and it thwarts Sarkozy, who is pursuing a right-wing campaign strategy.
Alain Juppé's platform seems reasonable in a lot of ways. He has set out to do exactly what so many people have been saying needs to be done for so long: He wants a smaller government and less spending. He wants to extend the French work week to 39 hours from 35. He wants to raise the retirement age to 65 from 62. He wants to unburden business and boost the economy by lowering non-wage costs. He even openly admits that his plans are going to be painful.
Nicolas Sarkozy, by contrast, has reworked his old strategy of imitating the Front National in an effort to win back voters who have drifted to the far right. He rails against multicultural society, particularly against Muslims, and intends to abolish guarantees that every child born in France automatically gets French citizenship. He wants Muslim children to eat pork in school cafeterias and headscarves to be banned at universities. But his strategy has not had the desired effect thus far. A majority of French voters simply don't trust him anymore. Sarkozy's most influential adviser when he was president, Alain Minc, has come out publicly in favor of Juppé.
Conservative presidential candidate Nicolas SarkozyFoto: DENIS CHARLET/ AFP
As such, the biggest question in the coming months is whether Juppé or Sarkozy will win the Républicains nomination. Juppé's problem isn't just that Sarkozy is able to bounce back from defeats better than any other French politician, as the Republican chairman, Sarkozy has also brought the party to heel. He can never be counted out.
Still, Juppé has a clear advantage for the time being, with surveys showing that while nearly three-quarters of party supporters view him favorably, only half support Sarkozy. In the past, "Sarko" always came out on top in political duels between the two. Perhaps things will turn out differently this time around.
Searching for Peaceful Coexistence
Either way, it would be tough to find two candidates who are more different. Whereas Nicolas Sarkozy overlays everything with peripatetic emotionalism, with exaggeration, hyperbole, bluster and flattery, Juppé is more sober, merely announcing what he intends to do in a given situation.
Whereas Sarkozy paints a picture of a France on the edge of the abyss and of himself as the only viable savior, Alain Juppé talks about his concept of an "identité heureuse," a happy identity, by which he means that a more or less peaceful coexistence is indeed possible.
While Sarkozy bellows his messages across France in an aggressive tone that is both too fervent and too grim, Juppé is plagued by a lack of passion. He sounds thoughtful, but not ardent. During his tenure as prime minister, a Gaullist party colleague once told him that France could not be led "like an administrative board." Can someone win an election if he treats party policies like a bookkeeper checking off inventory?
In interviews with Juppé about his plans for the country, the candidate seems highly practiced, to put it nicely. If he were president, what would he do first? "I would like to win back the trust of the French. They should once again be proud to be French," he says.
Juppé has established three goals for his presidency: better education for young people; a stronger, more assertive state, especially in matters of domestic security; and full employment. He repeats these goals no matter who he is talking to, usually verbatim.
Juppé spreads his tan, well groomed hands over the tablecloth as he talks about the chasm of trust between citizens and "the ones who govern us." It's a curious choice of words for someone who's belonged to the latter group for decades. But it's an absurdity that reappears whenever elections approach in France. Those who have long borne responsibility for all that has happened inside the country, whether on the right or the left, suddenly claim to be part of a rebirth.
Juppé doesn't like to be reminded of his hapless stint at the helm of France's government. He says he "accomplished great things" for his country and his city. He's been the mayor of Bordeaux for 20 years now, and even those who don't much care for him admit that he has been good for the city. Bordeaux now has a tram and bicycle lanes, and the city center has become a UNESCO World Heritage site.
But even Juppé shares responsibility for French politics losing their credibility. He wasn't only a protégé of Chirac's, he was also his henchman and vassal. As his deputy within the Paris municipal government, Juppé was involved in the dark side of city politics, from jobs that only existed on paper to dubious invoices. And Juppé was there as senior city officials were making themselves comfortable in decadent apartments in the upscale Saint-Germain-des-Près neighborhood for unimaginably low rents.
One of the most prominent tenants at the time was Alain Juppé. He had secured himself a six-room pad with a veranda along noble Rue Jacob. And his rent was a meager 13,000 francs a month, or less than 2,000 euros ($2,240) -- half the market price. Before moving in, Juppé spent half a million francs renovating the apartment -- a bill that was paid using taxpayer money. His son, daughter, half-brother and ex-wife were also able to move into extravagant apartments.
When asked about his extraordinary living conditions at the time, Juppé's expression hardens. "Those times are long gone," he says. The French people know he's not a dishonest man and he never enriched himself, Juppé says. Still, unreasonably low rents are inarguably financially advantageous.
"The laws back then were complicated," he says. For Juppé, the boost in popularity he is experiencing is also a vote of confidence.
His political career appeared to have come to an end more than once. After losing his job as prime minister in 1997, he was sentenced in 2004 to one year of ineligibility for office following a scandal involving illegal party financing. Then in 2007, after being appointed environment minister by Sarkozy, he had to immediately relinquish the post because he lost his parliamentary mandate in elections.
Maybe that's why he is so assiduously making the rounds these days, because he still has trouble relating -- not with issues, but with people. His audience may be interested, even attentive, but they are never excited.
Softer and More Indulgent
During a recent visit to a seaside resort on the Mediterranean, Juppé stood out like a sore thumb as he walked along the harbor. There he was, a man in a dark suit in a sea of flip-flop-wearing beachgoers and their brightly colored swim toys. The photographers were thrilled when he bought a scoop of strawberry sorbet, but when they were done snapping pictures, Juppé threw his ice cream away.
When a man in a Mykonos T-shift slapped Juppé on the shoulder and exclaimed, "Good luck!" he winced with fright. Often, Juppé just strides by the crowds of people; it's his staff members who do the hand-shaking and chatting with onlookers.
People who know Juppé say he has grown softer and more indulgent over the years, that he's no longer the cold technocrat who graduated from Ena, Sciences Po and École normale supérieure -- three of the most elite schools France has to offer. But he still seems to be most at ease among those like him.
Juppé says he only wants to stay in office for a single term, which is perhaps his biggest selling point. It takes the wind out of the sails of those who say he's too old to be president. The outcome of the Républicains' primary is still wide open. It remains to be seen what will ultimately convince voters -- Sarkozy's platform of fear or Juppé's demonstrative composure. If he can manage to secure his own party's nomination, it seems likely that his path to the presidency will be open.
On that summer day in Perpignan, after sampling pâté at the market in the morning, he has another campaign event in a gymnasium. Juppé has changed his shirt and suit after the long day, but the heat remains trapped inside the gym.
Lowest Common Denominator
The city's deputy mayor introduces Juppé with an enthusiastic, effusive speech of the kind the presidential candidate could never deliver himself. Juppé, the local politician says, is an Ultima Ratio of sorts, the last resort. And a voice of reason. He is, the deputy mayor intimates, the antidote to the chaos sowed by Francois Hollande and Front National.
When Juppé takes the stage, he uses his first few sentences to describe the state of the world and that of his country. He paints a picture of a world stricken by fear and endangered by ever new threats. Nevertheless, Juppé says, his voice as dull as ever, "we can't destroy everything now."
He doesn't want barriers between Germany and France or border controls within the European Union. "That would be an historical regression," he says, adding that Muslims are a part of France. "Our strength lies in our diversity."
Such sentiments aren't often heard in contemporary France, especially not from someone running for public office. They are well received, in part because of the unemotional tone in which they are delivered.
And because there doesn't appear to be a better option on the table. It is a sad truth about Alain Juppé's candidacy: Even if the French choose him as their country's next president next year, it won't be out of enthusiasm. It will be because he is the lowest common denominator in a divided country.