It was like the celebration of a high mass. Some 78,000 supporters attended the congress at which Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of the ruling UMP, was anointed as the party's presidential candidate in the election this spring.
French Interior Minister and head of the ruling conservative Union for a Popular Movement party Nicolas Sarkozy getting ready to knock history out.
The organizers of the party congress left absolutely nothing to chance. They hired a specialist who directs a popular musical talent show on French television. The stage was perfectly white, the backdrop could be lit up in the blue, white and red of the French national flag. There were video panels, mobile camera units and PA stacks. And there was a list of celebrity speakers whose fiery words whipped up the audience for Sarkozy's entrance like at a rock concert.
France's governing UMP party organized this mega-show to celebrate its presidential candidate in the exhibition hall near Porte de Versaille in Paris a place usually reserved for the car industry to display its newest products, or for farmers to present their most beautiful cows, their fattest hens and their best wine. It was a "family celebration," a coronation mass, celebrated in the very place where Jacques Chirac, the current French president, officially founded the UMP's predecessor party 30 years ago.
Sarkozy takes the lead
The issue wasn't whether Sarkozy would be nominated as the conservative candidate but how best to send him into the presidential race. He was the only presidential candidate left after all his conservative rivals had stepped aside in view of the party leader's overriding popularity. And so the result of the vote matched what everyone expected: 98.1 percent of the UMP's supporters voted for Sarkozy a result reminiscent of a Soviet plebiscite.
Even Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin changed course at the last minute in order to take a bow before Sarkozy by paying him a brief, 35-minute visit albeit one that barely satisfied the minimum standards of party-political diplomacy. Only President Jacques Chirac acted offended. He didn't even deign tp give a welcoming address to his potential successor. One after another, many of the most prominent politicians from Chirac's wing of the party had switched to Sarkozy's camp during the past weeks and days and this surely contributed to Chirac's bitterness.
It was precisely these UMP turncoats who sat at the foot of the stage on Sunday, competing with each other to give the most enthusiastic and devoted address to "dear Nicolas." Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie lashed out against socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal. Former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin mocked the oppositional party's platform. Alain Juppé, also a former Prime Minister and now the mayor of Bordeaux, reminded listeners of the values and virtues of the UMP, the conservative party that was born out of the alliance of Gaullists and neoliberals.
Sarkozy is moved
And so Sarkozy was able to present himself as the candidate of unity, beyond all divisiveness, animosity and trench warfare. He told his fellow Frenchmen he was "deeply moved" and then announced the direction he wants to move the party in: "We have a single goal victory," he proclaimed. "All of us together, in solidarity, as one family, can achieve anything: Together everything becomes possible." Ensemble tout devient possible that was the UMP candidate's hope-inspiring slogan.
Sarkozy is often accused of dividing people rather than uniting them, and 51 percent of the French find him more troubling than reassuring but on Sunday he presented himself as a genuine statesman, firmly rooted in the history of his nation. That's why he began by paying homage to the Gaullist grandees, to his mentors and political tutors cleverly making himself the successor of his illustrious role-models, and the keeper of their legacy. He repeated the words "I have changed" emphatically, signaling that he was going into the elections not as the representative of one party, but as the "candidate of all French people."
Sarkozy used the human touch. Widely perceived as brash, brutish and consumed by ambition, he confessed his "defeats," his "moments of weakness" and his "political doubts." The message was clear: I am a new, more mature and improved candidate. The newly open-hearted Sarkozy even repeatedly found words of praise for Chirac who is still threatening to create problems for Sarkozy's electoral campaign by running for the presidency himself, for the third time in his political career.
Then Sarkozy started giving the conservatives what they want to hear, invoking the "faces of France" a panorama of resistance fighters, writers and politicans and standing up for the separation of church and state in combination with "full respect for all religions." He appealed to the rule of law and to morality and he repeatedly referred back to the past, citing Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and George Clemenceau. The result: Sarkozy appeared as a genuine son of the "grande nation."
Sarkozy praises the French republic
He praised "tolerance" and pledged allegiance to the idea of France as an "open nation" and "land of human rights". But he also presented himself as a liberal defender of French culture and civilization. He criticized those who oppress women, who practise polygamy and subject their daughters to female circumcision. "Such people have no place on the territory of France," the presidential candidate said.
Family, education, property, hard work, authority were his keywords. Sarkozy's ideal France is a country "where students get up when the teacher enters the room" -- a "real republic" where people are rewarded in according to merit and where "everyone has rights, but duties too." A republic of equality, but not of artificial equalising that's what the son of a Hungarian immigrant is promising young people too. He presented them with the prospect of a future characterized by education and employment opportunities but only after six months of compulsory labor duty for all. "Stop asking what your country can do for you," he said, quoting John F. Kennedy, "and start thinking about what you can do for your country."
In making such statements, the presidential candidate knows himself to be in agreement with his political family, those people who perceive themselves as "French to the roots," who cherish conservative values and feel close ties to their homeland and who are troubled by the current economic crisis and by globalization. Sarkozy has just the right words for a middle class that is yearning back for the stability of the 1950s. He sings the praises of work, of entrepreneurship, but also of lower-level employees, civil servants and the working class. "I want to be the president of the people," Sarkozy says.
He didn't leave out a single controversial topic, and he forgot none of his possible voters. That's why he closed by addressing the environment and the "protection of the planet." His words about looking back and moving forward went down well with his audience in the exhibition hall as did his description of France as the geographical center of Europe, a bridge to the Mediterranean and to Africa. The very man who got cozy with President George W. Bush during his last visit to the US suddenly called for rebuking America "when they're wrong or when they violate the rights of nations."
"I'll need and France will need everybody here," Sarkozy told his audience, his voice shaky with emotion. He called on the right and the left, on those in Paris and those overseas, insisting there can be no more political divisions "when France is the issue."
Was anything missing? No, there was even a choirboy who came walking down the stage singing the national anthem in a high soprano, while high-pitched male voices intoned the "Marseillaise" in the background. The scene, designed to make people cry with emotion, seemed as if it had been lifted from the script of the popular film "Les Choristes." It was a well-staged show, and it sent patriotic chills down the spines of thousands of Sarkozy supporters.
The next rendezvous will be the first round of elections on April 22. France's presidential race has begun.
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