Juppé, Sarkozy and The Shale Gas Primary
Former French Prime Minister under Jacques Chirac (1995-2007) Alain Juppé, who is also Nicolas Sarkozy's political foe and soon to be the UMP right wing candidate for the next presidential election, said on 29 April in Montreal, Canada that he is in favor of exploring potential shale gas resources.
“France should have an experimental center to have a better and accurate understanding of what is at stake. Instead of refusing everything, I think this center would be useful under strict control necessary precautions so we can select techniques with an acceptable impact on the environment”. Alain Juppé also supports an “energy mix policy" with both nuclear and “clean energies” but he blasted “fundamentalist environmentalists”.
The mayor of Bordeaux travelled to the United States and Canada to raise money for his upcoming campaign.
Those comments are quite surprising given Juppé's environment credentials. He was Sarkozy’s Environment Minister for two months before losing his congressional seat in June 2007. After his 2004 condemnation in the Paris fictitious jobs case, Juppé was ineligible for 10 years. And so, he spent one year in Canada focusing on environment issues.
He attended the 2005 United Nations climate change conference in Montreal and met with green NGOs. Juppé was impressed and perhaps inspired by the way former US Vice-President Al Gore rebranded himself after conceding his Presidential bid to George W. Bush in 2000 as a defender of the planet and ultimately winning the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Back to France, Juppé worked with then President Chirac to prepare the UN climate change conference in Paris. In 2009, he was even appointed vice-president of GoodPlanet Foundation. “We often say that French citizens are more concerned by environment issues than their elected officials. It’s great that some of them set an example,” said Yann Arthus Bertrand, organization manager.
The comments on shale gas are seen by anti-fracking activists as a setback and a warning given Alain Juppé's presidential aspirations. The advocacy group Stop gaz de schiste, which fights against shale explorations reacted quickly and strongly on Twitter. “The best among us (nicknamed given to Alain Juppé by Jacques Chirac himself), sure of himself, short-lived super minister of Environment, promote shale gas”.
Actually, it’s not the first time Alain Juppé addresses this very issue. Back in October, he was interviewed on France 2, a French public television, explaining why he does not support the current ban. “We have to set up an experimental site under state control to make sure the conditions are met with no impact on the environment”.
Juppé may have not changed his mind in months but he obviously thought it was necessary to tweet about his comments. Alain Juppé is trying to differentiate his “experimental site” proposal to shale gas explorations. “Shale gas. I have already said several times: an experimental center is acceptable under strict conditions. I did not talk about explorations!” The difference between experimentations and explorations is hard to draw but words matters in politics especially in a country where shale gas is still a controversial issue.
The decision made by French President François Hollande to bury a government sponsored report showing an alternative technique to fracking safe for the environment with substantial economic benefits made the headlines last month. It was seen as the latest effort to avoid a debate at least for now. Indeed, there will be a conversation during the next presidential election about whether or not the 2011 anti-fracking bill should be lifted. Nicolas Sarkozy, the new leader of the UMP right wing opposition party said back in September when he re-entered into the political fray that he is in favor of not just exploration but developping potential shale resources whereas the ban on fracking was voted under his presidency.
More recently, a handful of UMP senators proposed an amendment to the energy transition bill to identify the non-conventional resources across the country but the amendment failed to pass. In February, 20 French companies helped to create the Non-Conventional Hydrocarbons Center (CHNC) hoping to revive the debate.
Is Juppé moving right?
Unlike Sarkozy, Juppé can argue that he did not change his position on the issue. Juppé is trying to distance himself from Sarkozy and draw some contrasts with the former French President. Unlike Sarkozy, Juppé is building a statesman image who is able to cross the aisle and unite the country. He is not seen as a polarizing figure anymore. He was interviewed by popular magazines promoting marriage equality, multiculturalism, and environment.
As a result, he could beat both François Hollande and Marine Le Pen, far-right National Front leader, by 30 points in hypothetical match-ups. According to an Opinion Way opinion poll released in mid-April, 70% of French voters could vote for Juppé in a run-off, 30% for Marine Le Pen or François Hollande. The margin would be smaller if Sarkozy was the conservative candidate. In that scenario, Nicolas Sarkozy would get 60% of votes. It’s still very early but it shows that the Mayor of Bordeaux would be a formidable candidate in a general election.
To get there, Juppé will have to win his party primary. Different polls indicate it’s going to be a hard fight. According to Odoxa, the race would end up with a statistical tie with 51% for Sarkozy, 49% for Juppé in the run off but the former Prime Minister is trailing Sarkozy by 10 points in the first round winning 35% of votes against 45% for the current UMP leader. Another poll released by IFOP institute finds Sarkozy 9 points ahead of Juppé with 42% of votes against 33%. Other candidates are far behind. His former Prime Minister crushes his rival for the nomination among moderates. 58% of center-right UDI likely voters could vote for Alain Juppé, 56% of center-left Modem voters.
His main challenge is the base of the party, the hard core conservatives that represents a significant part of the electorate if not the majority. Just 22% of them support Juppé with 58% preferring Sarkozy. A low turn-out among moderates and centrists could give a big advantage to the former French President. That’s why his main challenger to the nomination may have to move to the right on some issues. Shale gas may be one of those.
Of course, it’s not going to be a major issue but Sarkozy, who is now in favor of shale gas developments, could have criticized his opponent for sharing the same position than that of the left: no research, exploration or developments. It may be one of the few issues where the left have a strong disagreement with Alain Juppé which is not a bad thing in a primary contest.
Nearly 80% of left voters oppose shale gas developments in France according to a BVA study but 51% of right voters support it, 56% among UMP backers. Another poll conducted by CSA institute reveals that 59% of right voters would be open to the idea under strict conditions. 58% among UMP voters and even 61% among UDI (center-right) voters who are the key constituency of Alain Juppé. So it’s a win-win for Sarkozy's main challenger. Juppé's stance is shared by a majority on the right and he is distancing himself from the left.
Where do other candidates stand on the issue of shale gas?
The open primary that will occur next year is not just a match up between Sarkozy and Juppé. Potential challengers have their opinions too.
- Bruno Le Maire: “I’m not for shale gas developments but we must do some research and assess our resources” (October 2014, Twitter)
- François Fillon, former Prime Minister under Nicolas Sarkozy: “We cannot be afraid of everything. We are living in a country where people fear foreigners, nuclear energy, GMOs, shale gas… I admit the fact that the majority in Congress tighten the law banning all experiments underway at that time against my own willing. It’s a criminal approach not to conduct research. It shows a middle age spirit” (September 2012, BFMTV).
- Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Environment Minister under Nicolas Sarkozy: “I am opposed to shale gas developments under the techniques and conditions used in The United States” (Le Figaro). “I disagree with Nicolas Sarkozy but it’s not the first time... The precautionary principle does not stop progress to be made. I have many concerns regarding shale gas projects because of the hydraulic fracturing negative impact on the environment in the United States” (France Inter, French Public Radio).
- Xavier Bertrand: “It’s an asset that need to be exploited”. “Shale gas is not the Eldorado we are being promised but we should be able to get to the bottom of it, see the potential resources, the impact on the environment. Then we can make the decision knowing all facts. It’s pretty easy to be against. There is no debate. It’s a political and ideological fight for the Greens blocking the government. When the right had the majority in the National Assembly, some UMP congressmen refused to support legislations that could have led to explorations in their own districts”.
- Christian Estrosi: “If there is an alternative to fracking safe for the environment, we must try it! Back in 2012, the mayor of Nice asked for a congressional investigation on shale gas developments across the country following the decision not to renew drillings permits.