In France, the opposite number of the hip, modernising Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal was elected officially by his party's "militants" last Sunday. The "Union of the Presidential Majority" (UMP), the Gaullist party of President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, will run Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.
He was elected in a ballot of the party's members: 69% of them took part in the election, live or through the internet, and 98% - or a full 229,303 of them - chose Sarkozy.
The interesting thing is that Sarkozy represents something of an 'internal opposition' against the President and Prime Minister within the party. The dividing lines between his camp and theirs are multiple and not all equally transparent. What is sure is that the grassroots activists overwhelmingly support Sarkozy, who runs neck-and-neck with Royal in the polls, while both de Villepin and Chirac are very unpopular in the country, and not much more so in their own party. When pollsters ask people whom they'd vote for in the Presidentials and list both de Villepin and Sarkozy, Sarkozy tends to get two to three times as much support.
The dividing lines within the mainstream rightwing, post-Gaullist majority are both substantive and stylistic.
Chirac and de Villepin represent a traditionalist, statist brand of politics, in which the government maintains a strong hold, national glory tends to override economic efficiency, and France steers a profiled independent role in international politics. Sarkozy on the other hand presents himself as the representative of a new style of modernist, reformist politics, directed more clearly by the recipes of free market ideology, and more Atlanticist in orientation.
Chirac and de Villepin represent a consensual, but also centralist style of politics, in which social problems are abstractified and eventually, a solution is directed from the top down that wont offend all too many. Sarkozy, who boasts a well-known track record of tackling crime hands-on as minister, is often accused of being a populist, and encouraging "gut instinct" perceptions of law and order.
On the other hand, Chirac and de Villepin are creatures of a supremely elite background, education and long-term political and government career. Their attitude towards the violent troubles in the poor, migrant-inhabited suburbs, for example, may only be less confrontative because those are simply too far from their bed to be at the front of their mind. Sarkozy, on the other hand, whose father was a Hungarian immigrant and whose mother was the daughter of Sephardic Jews, makes the impression of having his finger on the pulse.
He has hardly followed some consistent rabble-rousing rightwing course, either. While the elites, sound in ideological failty to the state's founding principles, insist on the sacred concepts of the Republic, which allow for no distinction amongst ethnic or cultural groups and no recognition of religion in the public, political domain, Sarkozy favours affirmative action for minority groups.
The seeming contrast between street-style and elite-style has been underlined by the corruption affairs that have long trailed Chirac and his allies, and a protracted scandal which suggested that de Villepin or his allies had covertly spread a (false) assertion about Sarkozy's financial affairs.
Hands-on versus lofty, modernist versus traditional, combative versus consensual, street versus elite, mix-and-match versus ideological failty, populist versus byzantine - all of these political and stylistic elements pit Sarkozy and Chirac/de Villepin against each other. Sarkozy, well aware of the outsider's appeal amongst the rank and file, has consciously cultivated his rebel, challenger image. Supporters of Chirac and de Villepin have long tried to shape a horrified TSS ("tout sauf Sarkozy", or Anyone But Sarkozy) camp in the party. Feelings have been inflamed, resentments have been stoked. There is no lack of personal dimensions to the rivalries of ambitions within the government and executive branch.
Even last weekend, when the vote was held, de Villepin declared that he would not vote, and refused to confirm until the last minute that he would even attend the Congress where the winner would officially be announced. Chirac meanwhile has so far not excluded making a surprise run for another term as president himself. But the vote was a massive endorsement for Sarkozy, and de Villepin was left to plead that Sarkozy "recognize" the "diversities" and "temperaments" in the party, and abandon any "reductionist logic".
Now Sarkozy will meet the challenge of facing down his Socialist rival, Segolene Royal
. The race will be exciting because the two have been roughly tied in the polls for a long time now, but also because in many ways, Royal really is Sarkozy's counterpart.
Royal, too, has challenged her party's long-standing, traditionalist, insider leaders, a collection of men with egos to match their nickname, "the elephants". She, too, has profiled herself as a moderniser, who will be more eager to lend and learn from the English or even (hush) the Americans, and who will tackle the reform (read: market liberalisation) of the economy. And she, too, has carefully cultivated an outsider image, clamorously basing her run for her party's presidential nomination, which she won in November, on an Internet campaign among 'ordinary members'. Following a Howard Dean model, she succesfully encouraged the grassroots and rank-and-file to get involved, building a momentum of public appeal that forced the cabal of 'elephants' to grumblingly give way.
Then there are the various wildcards in the game. In the first round of French presidential elections, the candidates of the two main parties tend to pool only about half the vote. Last time round, in 2002, they got just 36%. The rest of the vote was fanned out across the political spectre.
The far right National Front's candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen, got 17% and shocked all by actually beating the Socialist into third place and going on to the second round. The Communist candidate got a record low of just 4% of the vote, but three Trotskyite candidates pooled a perplexing 10,4%. A Green candidate and a Republican-Socialist candidate both got over 5%. Two centrist candidates got 7% and 4%. The candidate for "Hunt, Fish, Nature, Traditions" got 4%. The result was positively chaotic.
Of course, that year, two lacklustre candidates (Chirac and Jospin) stood for the main parties, This time round, one can expect "Sego and Sarko" to be far more succesful in rallying the troops. The outcome of the elections will largely depend on who is the more succesful in courting all those third-, fourth- and twentyninth-party voters. Divisions within the UMP, if they persist, could cost Sarkozy crucial ground.