In one sense, it was just an effort at rebranding a party that has suffered electoral defeat, scandal and internal divisions in the past few years. This weekend, France’s main conservative party, under the leadership of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, voted to rename itself the Republicans, dropping its rather unwieldy identity as the Union for a Popular Movement.
But in adopting a name that plays much more directly to French nationalism and French history — allusions to the Republic date to the French Revolution — the party was also offering the latest evidence of the ways in which the far-right National Front is reshaping politics in France two years before the next presidential election.
Mr. Sarkozy’s strategy, analysts said, is to try to co-opt some of the appeal of the National Front and its charismatic leader, Marine Le Pen, in part through policy shifts to the right on issues like immigration and social issues, and in part through symbolism. The newly named Republicans are going to focus on “some of the subjects of the National Front in order to bring in some of the National Front voters, but so as not to be accused of having the same politics as the National Front, it is going to say, ‘We are Republicans and they are not,’ ” said Jerome Fourquet of IFOP, one of France’s major polling companies.
France is not the only European nation that has seen its center of political gravity shift to the right. Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative Party won the outright majority in the British elections this month. Poland elected a new president who stood to the right of the incumbent. Far-right parties are putting political pressure on center-right and center-left governments in Sweden and the Netherlands, among other places.
At the same time, some center-left parties — including the governing Socialists in France — have moved more toward the political middle, at least on economic issues. “There is a phenomenon here of moving to the right that we see in other European countries,” said Mr. Fourquet, adding, “The right is the still to the right, but the left is less to the left than before.”
But nowhere has the far right’s ascendancy been as striking as in France. Not only has the National Front steadily increased its share of the votes in elections at every level since Ms. Le Pen took over the party from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2011, but it has managed to find policy positions that polls and the results of local elections suggest appeal to voters, responding to their day-to-day concerns in ways that the more entrenched parties have not been able to.
Ms. Le Pen is now considered likely to be a serious presidential candidate in 2017, and one of the main threats to Mr. Sarkozy’s hopes of a comeback from his defeat in 2012 and a series of subsequent and ongoing investigations into his campaign’s finances. A three-way race in which Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Sarkozy split the vote on the right could hurt both of them in their efforts against President Francois Hollande, despite Mr. Hollande’s depressed standing in opinion polls.
It remains to be seen how the National Front might change if it ever got enough votes to be in national power. But its ability to keep pulling more followers has clearly disconcerted more mainstream conservatives, who now are discussing how far they should go in the same direction.
The Republicans’ tone on limiting immigration and especially on benefits for those who come to France, and on banning the wearing of religious symbols in universities, including the head scarves worn by Muslim women, are clear responses to the success of the National Front’s anti-immigration positions. Since the term immigrant is often code here for “Muslim,” it also plays to the National Front’s view that there is a frightening “Islamization” happening in the country.
It is positions like these that have led a number of analysts to refer to the newly constituted Republicans as National Front-Lite or Le Pen Lite. Such suggestions disconcert more centrist conservatives who bristle at such suggestions.
“I find that way of looking at it very strange,” said Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the vice president of the Republicans and a member of the French Parliament, who said that the Republicans included a broad spectrum of conservatives and centrists.
“It is both a strategic error and a moral failing to run after the National Front” in the search for votes, she said. “It’s a moral failing because it is not in our tradition and never will be, and it’s a strategic error because we won’t convince voters who are already skeptical of politicians and see them as insincere.”
Her views seem unlikely to deter other Republicans, who are quite willing to use language that is indistinguishable from that of Ms. Le Pen. At a meeting of Republicans on the outskirts of Paris on Saturday, Laurent Wauquiez, the party’s secretary general, said that foreigners came to France “not to find work but to benefit from our system of social services. This cannot continue.”
These views reflect real changes in what it means to be a conservative in France, going far beyond the language and slogans, said Thomas Guenolé, a political scientist and professor at Sciences Po, who specializes in comparison of the French and American political systems.
“Something is changing on social issues,” Mr. Guenolé said. “It is not droitizaition,” he said, using the French word for the turn to the right. “It is Le Penization. Becoming closer and closer to Le Penisme, the thinking of Jean Marie Le Pen, which is an ideology of hatred against Jews, Arabs, and foreigners,” he said, referring to Ms. Le Pen’s father, the National Front’s founder, whose views on foreigners continue to dominate the party despite efforts by his daughter to push him to the margins.
“If you leave out the anti-Semitic part of Jean Marie Le Penn’s thinking, every other element except that, you have in Nicolas Sarkozy.”
“The idea that more immigration means more unemployment, means less safety in France, more insecurity, that’s Le Penisme and Nicolas Sarkozy says that too,” Mr. Guenolé said.
The governing Socialists, led by Mr. Hollande and Manuel Valls, the prime minister, have embraced an economic agenda that accepts a less protectionist approach and is willing to entertain a loosening of labor laws to allow for a more flexible job market movement — views that are closer to those of conservatives and are also embraced by Mr. Sarkozy.
So with many parties moving to the right in one way or another, the best hope for the Republicans might be to cast themselves as defenders of traditional French values and a tough approach on immigration and on Islam, but as more responsible than Ms. Le Pen on economic issues, said Etienne Schweisguth, the research director at the Center for European Studies at Sciences Po.
“There are still some people who, although they are drawn by her positions on immigrants and law and order, are fearful of what it would mean to have the National Front run the government and Marine Le Pen in charge of the presidency,” he said.