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Political comeback for ‘French Karl Rove’

Photo: AFP

Patrick Buisson (pictured), Nicolas Sarkozy’s hardline political advisor, was blamed by many for the ex-president’s election defeat in May. But as the UMP party struggles to find a new leader, it appears Buisson is as influential as ever.


His career was supposed to be over, but the man who guided former French president Nicolas Sarkozy to victory in 2007 - and then to defeat in 2012 - may yet have the last laugh. Patrick Buisson, the close and very secretive advisor to Sarkozy, has not only climbed back aboard the opposition UMP (Union for a Popular Movement), but may be charting the conservative party’s future course.

The UMP is struggling with potentially destructive internal divisions after a close election for the party’s presidency between former prime minister François Fillon and the party’s secretary general Jean-François Copé. The Nov. 18 poll ended with a shock victory for Copé, followed by name-calling and allegations of vote rigging.

But as the factions loyal to Fillon and Copé were left reeling, one clear winner emerged from the contest. Besides casting ballots for the party’s next leader, UMP members were also asked to choose between six motions, or manifestos they believe should guide the party over the next two years.

With 28% of all votes cast – or six percentage points ahead of the next closest motion – a text inspired by the stealthy 63-year-old strategist Buisson came out on top.

La Droite forte, or the “Strong Right” motion, calls for the party to abandon its centrist Gaullist legacy and move boldly toward the right; it argues that the UMP must win back the support of working-class voters by adopting a tough stance on immigration and reaffirm France’s Christian roots.

The motion’s triumph prompted Françoise Fressoz, a well-known political columnist with the leading French daily Le Monde, to say that while the would-be party chiefs were bickering, Buisson was crying victory and transforming the UMP’s very identity along the way.

“It’s the real revolution of this election,” Fressoz wrote earlier this week, “The UMP is becoming a nationalist right-wing party that is slipping away from its founders.”

The French Karl Rove

Buisson has been credited for victories before. When Sarkozy presented him with the Legion of Honour – Frances highest civilian distinction – in 2007, the president added, “It is Patrick whom I owe for getting elected.”

Since then, Buisson has been in the French media spotlight. His nicknames have included “the shadow strategist,” “Sarkozy’s oracle,” and “Sarkozy’s right brain lobe.”

The monikers used for Buisson are very similar to those used for Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s top White House advisor and a long-time Republican political strategist. Rove, 61, dubbed “Bush’s brain” by the American press, is widely credited with masterminding Bush's presidential victories in 2000 and 2004. Bush even referred to Rove as “the architect” in his 2004 victory speech.

During this year’s presidential campaigns in France, Harvard scholar Arthur Goldhammer said of Buisson: “His political arithmetic is as precise as Karl Rove's, and the knives he proposes to use for slicing and paring this or that tranche of voters away from the opposition have been honed over many years of labour in the back-kitchens of politics.”

However, the comparisons may end with the pair’s right-wing bent and obsession with voter demographics. According to Jean-Yves Camus, one of France's pre-eminent scholars of the French right, Buisson is an intellectual that escapes easy classification.

Buisson was once a friend of France’s far-right figurehead Jean-Marie Le Pen, but has never joined a far-right movement; he is an ardent Catholic, but believes in a secular state; he has an acute interest in politics, but is a respected historian who keeps out of the everyday political fray.

“Buisson has a long term view of French history, and is not interested in simple slogans,” Camus said, adding that Buisson’s true pursuit is investing France’s right with a legitimacy and unapologetic stance that has eluded it since the end of World War Two.

“Since 1945 the right has never been able to articulate a clear ideology, or to clearly articulate their identity… Buisson argues that the left does not hesitate to say ‘we are on the left’, so why does the right hide the fact that it belongs to that tradition?” Camus noted.

A new UMP emerging

While both Karl Rove and Patrick Buisson saw their respective favourites taste bitter election defeats this year, Buisson appears to have bounced back.

Though Sarkozy has not returned to the political arena since he lost in May, Buisson has found fresh blood within the UMP to carry forth his vision. Guillaume Peltier and Geoffroy Didier, the 36-year-old duo who publicly championed the so-called Strong Right motion, are avowed disciples of Buisson.

According to an October article by the left-leaning weekly Marianne, Buisson remains a coveted figure even among the UMP’s more moderate elements. Former budget minister Valérie Pécresse and former minister of higher education and training Laurent Wauquiez, who have defended a more centrist approach, have regular phone and face-to-face meetings with the political guru, Marianne revealed.

Perhaps most importantly, it appears Buisson’s message has been embraced by the UMP’s rank and file. According to Olivier Rouquan, a French political analyst contacted by France 24, party members have historically rejected Buisson’s idea that “the mainstream right must absorb the far right” to win at the polls.

For Rouquan, the results of the UMP’s internal vote prove that Buisson’s ideas are now the ones that inspire the party’s base. Buisson’s unapologetic right has not just gained traction among the UMP, it may be the new marching order.

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