France may soon have its own Republican party. And although the country is often decried as far too socialist by U.S. Republicans, surveys predict it to immediately become one of the most popular French parties.
The country has not undergone a rapid Americanization, of course. Instead, former president Nicolas Sarkozy is reportedly planning to replace the name of current conservative party Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) with the Republicans. According to French radio station Europe 1, the official announcement will be made May 30.
But why would one of the two most important French parties suddenly change its name? Sarkozy and his aides have reportedly reached the conclusion that the party's reputation has been irrevocably damaged.
"I think Sarkozy's primary goal is to rebrand his party. The reputation of UMP has suffered from financial scandals and internal squabbles over the past three years," political scientist Nicolas Jabko, who has taught in France and the U.S., told The Washington Post on Friday.
Sarkozy himself acknowledged in a recent interview with Le Figaro that his party's "brand is a little worn off."
UMP President Jean-François Copé has been alleged of illegally using party funds to finance Sarkozy's 2012 election campaign. Infighting further fueled the rapid descent of France's leading conservative party.
Whereas Sarkozy promotes the name change as part of a wide-ranging relaunch of the party, others remain skeptical. "Of course the rebranding is supposed to divert attention from the UMP's real problems," Jabko said.
"It's like they are saying, 'We have the same man in charge that we've had for 10 years, we have no new ideas, so let's come up with a new name,' " Bruno Bernard, a former ministerial adviser for the UMP, was quoted as saying by European news site The Local.
As French news channel BFMTV pointed out, name changes are not that uncommon among French parties, given the country's multiparty system with frequently changing coalitions and break-ups.
It is very unlikely, however, that the renaming is inspired by the U.S. Republican party. France regards itself as the birthplace of Republicanism, which originated in the French revolution and has a different meaning than U.S. conservatism. French republican values such as liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity) date back to the 18th century -- but UMP critics say that they are increasingly absent from modern conservative politics.
Recently, the UMP had lost voters to the far-right Front National, and tried to win some of them back by becoming more extreme on certain issues. "With the new name, the party now seeks to distinguish itself from the Front National," French public television analyzed. The January terror attacks in Paris have put renewed pressure on all French parties to lay out plans on how to confront the rift between France's growing immigrant population and the white majority.
"Sarkozy has a right-wing image in France and he will certainly want to appeal to far-right voters, but he cannot afford to lose the centrist voters," political scientist Jabko said. "From this perspective, the adjective "républican" is useful because it has very positive connotations in France's political tradition and culture."