Alain Juppé looks to conquer anxious France with reassurance

Analysts say ex-prime minister’s ascent is symptomatic of mainstream voters’ anxiety

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Even in Bordeaux, the southwestern French town that has chosen Alain Juppé as its mayor for nearly two decades, support for the centre-right presidential hopeful is more a matter of reason than of heart.

“If he’s president, we’re going to suffer, you know, with his intransigent personality. But that’s what France needs,” says Sylvie, a fishmonger at the city’s 200 year-old Capucins food market.

Like most business owners and residents in the wealthy city of wine, the 64-year-old Bordelaise has grown to appreciate the politician, despite his abrasive style that to many comes across as arrogance. The 71-year-old former prime minister, who according to opinion polls will win the presidential nomination for the centre-right, has shaped Bordeaux into a culinary and artistic magnet for US and Asian tourists seeking a taste of French art de vivre.

“He has made a beautiful city,” Sylvie says, slicing a sole into fillets. “I have seen him in meetings here. He’s smart. But he’s not one to parley endlessly if you see what I mean.”

The wider country too seems to have warmed to the stern figure who tops the rankings of France’s favourite politicians month after month. Opinion polls suggest that in May next year, this popularity could help him win the presidency. Mr Juppé is expected to beat former president Nicolas Sarkozy in primary elections on November 20 and 27. The current president François Hollande, a socialist, is so unpopular he would struggle to qualify for the second round, which would leave Mr Juppé in a run-off against far-right leader Marine Le Pen that he would very likely win.

It is an extraordinary renaissance. In 1995, Mr Juppé became the most loathed prime minister in France’s modern history after his reforms of the welfare system sparked mass street protests. Ten years later, he was pronounced politically dead after a court found him guilty of illegal party funding during his time as finance director at Paris city hall under Jacques Chirac. Receiving a 14-month suspended prison sentence and forbidden to run for public office for 12 months, he retreated with his second wife Isabelle and his younger daughter Clara to Montreal for a year.

Back in Bordeaux, he rebuilt voters’ trust. The nerdy graduate of Normale Sup, Sciences Po and Ena, three of France’s elite universities, became “more human,” says Delphine Jamet, a green party city councillor. “He has softened his roughest traits,” she notes, but can easily get angry when she and her socialist colleagues nag him about the town’s budget.

Mr Juppé does not deny it. “I can be arrogant, but never vain,” he said in a recent television documentary. Asked about critics who find him boring, he quipped: “Screw them.”

“I try to be myself, without playing a part, I think that’s what people appreciate here, this sincerity,” Mr Juppé told the FT.

Political analysts say Mr Juppé’s ascent is symptomatic of mainstream voters’ anxiety. As a growing number of disenchanted voters turn to the extremes, his anti-populist stance reassures the centre ground of the electorate who seek an anchor.

His critics on the right argue he is a status quo politician who will not subject France to the shock treatment it needs.

But after Mr Sarkozy’s “bling-bling” presidency and Mr Hollande’s lack of preparation, his old-fashioned professorial approach is closer to French voters’ idea of what a president should be. Mr Juppe’s years as prime minister, and more recently as defence and foreign minister, have given him valuable experience, while his time as a political pariah has recast him as an outsider. According to Jérome Fourquet, director at Ifop, a pollster, so deep is the popular distrust towards the political class that his past conviction looks less suspicious than the legal cases facing Mr Sarkozy, who has not been convicted and denies wrongdoing.

“Juppé’s poise, experience and seriousness has a sudden appeal to the centre ground mostly because of the weak political alternative,” Mr Fourquet says. “The French are saying: ‘We don’t want someone who makes us dream. We want someone who does not make us feel ashamed and does the job.’ Juppé isn’t glamorous but he is more credible.”

A baby-boomer born in Mont-de-Marsan, a medium-sized town 100km south of Bordeaux, to a Gaullist farmer who loved rugby and a pushy Catholic mother, Mr Juppé is the product of the French state education system at its best. After attending France’s most selective schools, he joined the cabinet of then prime minister Jacques Chirac in 1976. Weekends spent working on the politician’s speeches marked the start of a loyal bond that has lasted to this day.

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A father of three, Mr Juppé has not veered much from the drastic proposals he embraced as prime minister in 1995. His recipe for stimulating the eurozone’s second-largest economy involves saving up to €100bn in public spending over five years — double the amount the ruling Socialist government has strived to achieve. He also wants to slash 250,000 civil servant jobs, raise the pension age from 62 to 65, lift the 35-hour working week back to 39 hours, facilitate lay-offs and restrict unemployment benefits. He has promised to scrap the wealth tax and cut levies for businesses to reduce unemployment stuck at nearly 10 per cent.

commentators wonder whether Mr Juppé’s current popularity — which owes much to the unattractiveness of rival candidates — could evaporate once he has secured the nomination.

“Most of these measures are unpopular,” says François Miquet-Marty, head of ViaVoice, a pollster. “Yet outlining them has not eroded his popularity. That’s a mystery. Perhaps the French appreciate being treated as grown-ups, for now.”

A vision of a society at peace with its religious and ethnic diversity, summed up in the notion of “happy identity”, that contrasts with Mr Sarkozy’s more confrontational approach at a time of heightened terror threat and social tensions, has also masked Mr Juppé’s reformist economic platform, Mr Miquet-Marty notes.

Asked whether he counted on remaining as popular if elected, Mr Juppé told the FT: “Don’t kill my morale just yet!”

“It’s true there will be tough reforms to do, but I think that if one explains them well, the French will realise that we can’t go on like this,” he said. “The country is sinking but has all it needs to rebound.”

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