By Richard Lough
PARIS (Reuters) – Hours after Donald Trump’s U.S. election victory, a close political ally of French presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy hailed the moment as “a beautiful day”.
While the result aroused anxiety among much of Europe’s political mainstream, French legislator Philippe Meunier drew cheers as he warmed up a crowd of conservative faithful before Sarkozy arrived for a rally near the city of Lyon.
“I was woken up this morning to good news from the United States and salute the determination of Americans who were faced with those who lecture us about what to think, and for whom to vote,” he said.
At the time, western leaders were offering to work with Trump but making clear their apprehension over his campaign threats on issues ranging from NATO solidarity to the Iran nuclear deal and climate change.
But with France holding its own presidential election next spring, the Sarkozy camp appears to have no such fears.
Sarkozy, who did not support Trump’s campaign, said the U.S. election result was a rejection of “conformist thinking”. The conservative is pursuing a search for votes that has taken him fishing in the waters of the far-right National Front party.
Meunier told Wednesday’s rally that the U.S. result exposed a frustration voters felt toward an establishment that was entrenched across the West, including in France.
He set the stage for Sarkozy, who railed against an elite in France that he said had turned a deaf ear to citizens under socialist President Francois Hollande.
Sarkozy, who as president between 2007-2012 was himself part of that elite, said he was listening, less than two weeks before a primary contest for the center-right presidential ticket.
Against the backdrop of a wave of bloody Islamist militant attacks in France and Europe’s immigration crisis, the 61-year-old promises to get tough on immigration, defend France’s secular values and revive national pride.
“There is an anger among the people. They are living in a reality which is no longer recognized by many politicians,” Sarkozy said a day later in a television interview.
“Someone who asks the question about immigration is not feeble. Someone who says France needs its borders is not a nationalist. And someone who expresses his anger at the ballot box is not a populist.”
Beyond winning the primary contest, Sarkozy wants to ensure that Marine Le Pen, leader of the euro-sceptic, anti-establishment National Front, does not pull off a Trump-style win in the 2017 presidential election.
Opinion polls show Le Pen performing strongly in the first round, backed by disenchanted voters who feel ignored by Paris.
In campaign speeches, Sarkozy vows to ban the Islamic burkini swimsuit, has ruled out special school lunches for Muslim children – saying they should fill up on a double portion of chips when pork is on the menu – and told migrants gaining citizenship that their ancestors were Gauls.
Sarkozy’s main rival, mild-mannered former prime minister Alain Juppe, calls Sarkozy’s campaign strategy “suicidal”. Sarkozy says Juppe would be too cautious on reforms.
Sarkozy is favorite among Republican party supporters to win the primary votes on Nov. 20 and 27. However, these are open to all center-right parties; anyone who pays two euros ($2.17) and says they adhere to the center-right’s values can vote.
A Nov. 3 poll by Elabe of centrist and conservative voters showed Juppe with 39 percent backing in the opening round, with Sarkozy trailing 12 points behind. It then showed Juppe romping home in the primary run-off, and a number of polls suggest Sarkozy’s strategy has alienated middle-ground voters.
But after Britain voted to leave the European Union and Trump defied pollsters to win the White House, Sarkozy and his allies say he is reading the mood of voters right.
“The people today have different aspirations to those of the establishment,” said Meunier, who advises Sarkozy on defense issues.
Trump prevailed with the support of white working-class Americans who saw the business magnate as someone who understood their plight and exasperation after long feeling marginalized.
Sarkozy calls himself the voice of France’s “silent majority”, the same term Trump used.
“I want to be the spokesman of the silent majority which today says ‘enough is enough’,” Sarkozy tweeted after his speech to 3,000 supporters on the outskirts of Lyon.
Juppe’s camp dismissed the idea that Sarkozy could benefit from the wave of populism sweeping across Europe. “Nicolas Sarkozy does not represent the anti-establishment vote. He was president,” said Virginie Calmels, a Juppe campaign spokeswoman.
The son of a Hungarian immigrant father, Sarkozy cut his teeth in politics as mayor of the wealthy district of Neuilly outside central Paris, before serving as President Jacques Chirac’s finance minister. Later as interior minister, he called protesters in a Paris suburb “scum”.
As president, Sarkozy’s high-energy style and abrasive manner polarized voters. His modest attempts at tax and labor reforms and limited success in creating jobs disenchanted both free-marketeers and center-ground voters whom he had also assiduously courted to win power.
Polls indicate that the winner of the center-right primary is likely to meet, and beat, Le Pen in the May 7 presidential run-off vote. Even so, left-wing voters despise Sarkozy and it is not obvious how easily he would create a cross-party front to defeat her.
Sarkozy promised to quit politics altogether after Hollande defeated him in May 2012. However, he returned to the fray in September 2014, citing the need to rescue France from what he described as the socialist’s catastrophic presidency.
“He’s the only one capable of doing anything. He’s a fighter, he has the authority needed to govern and he’s already proved himself,” said one 64-year-old pensioner in Neuilly. “We need him.”
(Additional reporting by Simon Carraud and Ingrid Melander; editing by David Stamp)