When Nicolas Sarkozy took to the stage to tell members of France’s conservative Common Sense group that a law passed last year giving same-sex couples marriage and adoption rights should be “completely rewritten” they bayed for more.
Egged on by cries of “Repeal! Repeal!”, Mr Sarkozy caved in. “If you prefer that I say repeal the law . . . it comes down to the same thing,” he said in a seemingly improvised moment.
The weekend promise to repeal the highly charged legislation highlights the challenge the far right is posing to Mr Sarkozy’s political comeback.
For Mr Sarkozy to fulfil his ambition of winning a second presidential term he is likely to have to defeat Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right National Front (FN), in 2017. But in order to get a shot at the presidency he must first win the nomination to be the candidate of his centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party against centrist Alain Juppé, the former prime minister and now mayor of Bordeaux.
Jérôme Fourquet, a pollster and political analyst at Ifop in Paris, argues that Mr Sarkozy finds himself in the tricky and unique position of having to fight two elections almost simultaneously. The first comes on November 29 for the leadership of his party, which Mr Juppé is not contesting and the former president is all but certain to win. The second, in 2016, is for his party’s nomination for presidential candidate, where Mr Juppé is shaping up to be a serious rival.
The passing of the same-sex marriage law last year sparked demonstrations in France as hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets.
Mr Sarkozy is seizing on a theme that speaks to his acute awareness of the recent success of the FN, says James Shields, professor of French politics at Aston University in the UK.
That Mr Sarkozy, remembered for his 2007-2012 razzle-dazzle presidency, should have seized on one of the Socialist government’s most emblematic pieces of legislation should come as no surprise given his highly conservative audience at the weekend meeting.
“He is trying to drill down into the UMP core, appealing to its deepest instincts,” says Professor Shields.
Until Saturday, Mr Sarkozy’s line on the politically charged issue of gay marriage was one of caution. But the wait and see approach has started to weigh on his popularity.
An Ifop poll this month suggests that 52 per cent of UMP sympathisers back him for the party’s presidential nomination – a healthy figure but sharply down on the 65 per cent who supported him in September.
In the same period Mr Juppé has seen his popularity among UMP sympathisers rise from 23 per cent to 33 per cent.
“Sarkozy has had lots of difficulty getting back [into politics],” says Mr Fourquet. “The lack of impetus so far is forcing him further to the right.”
But while moving to the right may go down well with many of the 270,000-odd party die-hards who are expected to vote in the leadership contest, the former president could be storing up problems for himself later in the primary campaign when he will face Mr Juppé, Mr Fourquet adds .
About 2m people are expected to cast their votes in the primaries and their politics are not as far to the right as those of the voters Mr Sarkozy is now trying to woo.
According to one opinion poll, 58 per cent of UMP sympathisers believe that gay couples should have the right to get married – up from 33 per cent in January last year. At the same time, 38 per cent of them now support gay couples’ right to adopt, compared with 18 per cent in December 2012. Mr Juppé, firmly placing himself in the centre, criticised the former president’s weekend performance.
Mr Sarkozy’s shift comes at a testing time for his UMP party, which is struggling with heavy debts and is racked by deep internal divisions that have played into the hands of the surging FN.
Under the command of Ms Le Pen, the FN has made significant progress this year – thanks, in large part, to voter frustration with President François Hollande’s Socialists and the fractious UMP. At the European parliamentary elections in May the FN won a nationwide vote for the first time, easily beating the other parties. The stunning result followed the party’s best performance in municipal elections since 1995.
Launching his comeback on Facebook Mr Sarkozy sought to build “unity” among French voters. Advocating a repeal of the gay marriage law may have just made that a little harder to achieve.
Get alerts on France when a new story is published