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What's in a name? Nicolas Sarkozy and 'his' republic

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy plans to rename his party. If he gets his way, it will be called "Les Républicains", "The Republicans." Resistance, however, is already building up.

Half a year ago, former French president Nicolas Sakrozy made his political comeback. For the time being, he is the leader of his UMP party ("Union pour un Mouvement Populaire" - "Union for the People's Movement"). But his efforts to establish himself as UMP candidate in the 2017 presidential elections are becoming more concrete - although he hasn't made an official announcement to that effect yet.

At the moment, his prospects of another presidency - after being defeated by socialist Francois Hollande in 2012 - are believed to be good: within the party, the UMP's

triumph in local elections at the end of March 2015

is attributed largely to him.

However, prior to a potential candidacy, Sarkozy has something else in mind: he has plans to re-name his party. The "Union for the People's Movement" is to turn into "The Republicans." In Sarkozy's words, the name change is to represent a renewal of the values of the Republic, with the assimilation of migrants in France first and foremost in his mind.

Frankreich Regionalwahlen 2015

French far-right Front National party president Marine Le Pen

Critics argue that he pursues quite different aims: The new name is to help cover up a scandal involving illegal election campaign funding made public in 2014. As a result, the party leaders at the time had to step down collectively.

Most notably, those critics continue, Sarkozy is ideologically moving in the direction of extreme right-wing party "Front National" (FN). The "Libération" daily recently published an open letter, in which French intellectuals and scholars accused Sarkozy of accommodating the term "Republic" to his own ideas. He couldn't have failed to notice that the "Front National" increasingly used the term "Republic" as well - in a way which implied exclusion. This approach finds favor with FN voters, the open letter concludes: "And now Sarkozy, too, pursues this strategy, which is dishonest, yet potentially successful."

In recent years, the Front National had turned into an ever-increasing challenge to the UMP. With the help of a new name, linked to a review of policies, the authors suggest, Sarkozy intends to win back votes previously lost to the FN camp.

Appropriation of Republican ideals

From "UMP" to "Les Républicains": The name refers directly to the core of French national identity, namely the republic form of government. It had been adopted in the wake of the 1789 revolution and contrasted sharply with the absolute monarchy, which had recently been toppled by the French.

Frankreich Solidaritätsmarsch 11.01.2014

Hundreds of thousands of people gather on the Place de la Republique to attend the solidarity march (Rassemblement Republicain) in the streets of Paris on January 11, 2015

"Les Républicains:" Many critics are finding fault. It had an excluding quality, the editorial of "Le Monde" stated on Friday, 15 May, alleging that all those who are not members of the party - the overwhelming majority of the French people - didn't share Republican ideals. In other words, all French - with the exception of the "Republicans" - had moved away from the "freedom, equality, fraternity" principle. The name, wrote French historian Jean-Noël Jeanneney in mid-April, was a "dishonorable appropriation of French heritage."

Inspired by FN's surge in popularity, Sarkozy appears to succumb to increasingly narrow concepts of the Republic as well: "A democracy can make do with integration, the Republic can't," he said in 2014, adding that "the Republic does not accept minorities. It demands assimilation. In return, it offers a common culture and history."

Chiming in with the zeitgeist

By using such words, "Le Monde" argues, Sarkozy was in line with the grim zeitgeist, which provided the framework for his understanding of the republic: "This republic is barred, dour and gloomy."

Thus far, UMP leaders are far from impressed, accusing their opponents of political timidity. The Left was afraid of talking about "France", states the UMP homepage: Being a Republican meant, first and foremost, asking immigrants to adopt the values of the republic - "without restrictions, without exceptions."

It is widely believed that, at the end of May, the party base will support the name change from UMP to "Les Républicains" with a majority. At the latest, regional elections in December will reveal which kind of republic the French really want.

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