France’s Kosciusko-Morizet poised to shake up right-wing presidential primary

Patrick Kovarik, AFP | French MP and candidate for the right-wing Les Républicains primary Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet gives a press conference on August 25, 2016 in Paris

French MP Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet is the only woman running in France’s right-wing presidential primaries. She is a long-shot candidate for the Elysée palace, struggling to shake her camp out of its obsession with identity politics and security.


Kosciusko-Morizet, 43, barely snuck into the main opposition Les Républicains presidential primary on Thursday, obtaining the required number of endorsements only a few hours before a deadline set by organisers. Her quest for signatures became a matter of national attention last week amid the growing prospect of a men’s only nomination contest.

Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppé – the frontrunner in the conservative primaries, according to most opinion polls – went as far as to publicly urge fellow party members to endorse Kosciusko-Morizet. “It would be a shame to have no women in the primary,” he told supporters at a rally in south-western France on August 14, echoing Kosciusko-Morizet’s own statements.

Juppé said her presence would help widen the scope of the political debate as French conservatives search for their presidential nominee, although he was likely just as worried about critics writing off the primary as yet another chest-thumping contest among the usual frat boys, and about appealing to women voters.

The other primary candidates include former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, former prime minister François Fillon, former agriculture minister Bruno Le Maire and former UMP party chief Jean-François Copé. Lesser-known politicians bring the list up to 11 candidates.

Enter Kosciusko-Morizet, who strikes an immediate contrast with her in-party rivals not just because she is a woman and under the age of 50, but because of the issues she cares about.

“She is an atypical candidate within her party,” French politics expert Olivier Rouquan agreed. “She is very focused on sustainable development. The right has turned its back on this issue and has failed to come up with any new ideas. Alain Juppé has made some environmentally-friendly choices as the mayor of Bordeaux, but for her it’s a priority.”

Technological innovation and entrepreneurship among young people are also at the heart of her campaign. But beyond the issues she has chosen to emphasize on the campaign trail, Kosciusko-Morizet is also setting a very different tone.

Identity politics have come to dominate the political debate in France as the country struggles with the fear and grief caused by attacks claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group. Nicolas Sarkozy, Juppé’s closest opponent, appears to have pinned his presidential bid on squeezing France’s Muslim minority, pledging to extend a ban on Muslim veils to cover universities and banning alternative, non-pork lunches in schools.

Kosciusko-Morizet has chastised this “pessimism that drags the country down toward the far-right”, promising to bring a positive message to voters this autumn.

Far-right critic

Kosciusko-Morizet, most often referred to in France by the initials NKM, was named a junior minister by Sarkozy in 2007, but rose to national prominence in 2010 as his young and outspoken environment minister. Two years later she became the official spokeswoman for his failed presidential re-election bid.

In 2014 she ran a hard-fought campaign to become the first woman mayor of Paris. She eventually lost to the incumbent deputy mayor, Socialist Anne Hidalgo, but the race offered her months of ample coverage in the media. She continues to serve as a member of France’s National Assembly, representing the Essone department, and as a Paris councilwoman.

Over the past she has also earned attention as a fierce critic of the far-right National Front, even as many members of her camp adopt the rhetoric of the anti-immigration party and downplay the dangers of its creeping presence in France’s political landscape.

In that sense, her refusal to focus her primary campaign on the National Front’s favourite topics – national identity and security – is consistent with her track record. “She has remained committed to certain values, to the rule of law and civil liberties. She has also remained a persistent critic of the National Front. It has become her trademark,” Rouquan noted.

But will the struggle to lead France’s right-wing in a new direction cost her the primary, or even her political future?

Beyond the ballot

Now that she has ensured that her name will be on the ballot in the first round of Les Républicains’ primary on November 20, Kosciusko-Morizet must quickly ramp up support among conservative constituents.

Recent opinion polls show that only around 4 percent of right-wing voters are ready to pick her as the party’s nominee, with some observers saying her nomination bid is a lost cause.

“NKM struggled to secure her endorsements because her positions, which are often closer to the centre-left, are incompatible with many right-wing voters,” Thomas Guénolé, a political analyst and professor at the prestigious Sciences Po university, told FRANCE 24.

Experts nevertheless agree that Kosciusko-Morizet will continue playing a prominent role in French politics beyond the current primary battle.

Guénolé thinks Kosciusko-Morizet is a savvy politician who has already proven she knows how to exploit circumstances to her advantage, for example by lambasting rivals for focusing on her gender rather than her ideas, and at the same time using the fact that she is a woman as an argument to win primary endorsements. “She’s a fine strategist,” he said.

“The first round of the primaries allows candidates to gain a certain notoriety, to test the waters and open the possibility of joining a future government as ministers,” Rouquan added. “[Kosciusko-Morizet] is someone who will continue to matter in the future.”

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