Why you should care
Because she’s running for president.
April 2012 was a great month for Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet. The spokeswoman for French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s re-election campaign saw her candidate proceed to the runoff round of the presidential election, where he faced the bland socialist François Hollande. Returned to power, Sarkozy was seen as likely to appoint Kosciusko-Morizet, his former ecology minister, as his prime minister.
But … Sarkozy lost. Two years later, Kosciusko-Morizet, popularly known as NKM, fell short in her campaign to become mayor of Paris. She dramatically broke with Sarkozy as he pivoted to satisfy the extreme right. Her ascent seemed over to everyone except, well, herself. On International Women’s Day last March, Kosciusko-Morizet announced her candidacy for the presidential nomination of the center-right Republican Party. If she goes all the way, the 43-year-old will be the first female head of state in modern French history, as well as the youngest since Napoléon III.
Like Napoléon, Kosciusko-Morizet was born into political aristocracy. Her grandfather was an ambassador to the United Nations and her father a longtime mayor. She studied at the prestigious École Polytechnique. But NKM reminds OZY that she began life as an engineer. Speaking rapid French and switching between the formal vous and familiar tu, she delivers her stump speech: She’s in politics because the establishment — defined as Sarkozy and Alain Juppé, the former prime minister and front-runner for the Republican nomination — aren’t up to contemporary challenges. “I see something missing in their policies,” she says. “Issues like the digital economy and ecological languor. The world is changing rapidly but our political world is aloof.”
President Jacques Chirac, whom she advised on environmental issues, famously labeled her a “pain in the neck.”
That is her message as France approaches the spring election. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, will compete against a Socialist candidate (the unpopular Hollande has yet to decide if he will seek re-election) and the Republican nominee. The stakes are high: The election has become a referendum on whether France should embrace the world or retreat into itself. “Questions of border control, the migrant crisis and terror have created a particular climate” in which the French are dealing with issues of national identity, says Dominic Thomas, a French politics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. Everything else has become “secondary to the identity wars taking place.”
While she’s no pushover on border security, Kosciusko-Morizet is also an eloquent defender of a France that remains engaged with the world. “Most nations are about borders, but France, like America, is a meeting of territory and ideas,” she says. “If you’re not born Japanese, you cannot become Japanese. But you can become French, and we should perpetually reflect about who we are.” Jérôme Peyrat, a senior political counselor to Kosciusko-Morizet, says that such positions make her attractive to younger centrists and conservatives. “People who want a more contemporary politics and oppose the National Front will support her,” he says.
Kosciusko-Morizet’s vision of France includes what she calls the “Uberization” of the economy — she’d like to relax France’s rigid labor laws to support freelancers. “It’s not an issue of whether this is a good or bad change. It’s already happening, so we have to make it work,” she says. “For young people, it’s easier to find a client than a boss.”
Her embrace of the global economy and outspoken opposition to Le Pen underlie her complicated relationship with those who might otherwise be her ideological kin. Under the leadership of Sarkozy, the Republicans have sounded increasingly nationalistic tones to appeal to National Front voters. Kosciusko-Morizet, however, scoffs that the Republicans could never satisfy Le Pen’s base. “The ‘extreme right’ is not a harder version of the right,” she says. “It’s a form of violence and subversion, another territory of politics entirely.” Le Pen and Koscisuko-Morizet have an antagonistic relationship that dates back to at least 2011, when Kosciusko-Morizet published a book that was highly critical of the National Front. A National Front spokesman didn’t return a request for comment, but public accounts suggest the disdain is mutual: During parliamentary elections in 2012, Le Pen called for her supporters to support the Socialist candidate and oust Kosciusko-Morizet from her district. (Kosciusko-Morizet won.)
Then there are conservatives who view her as a pushy upstart who should wait her turn. President Jacques Chirac, whom she advised on environmental issues, famously labeled her a “pain in the neck.” The nickname stuck. The left regards Kosciusko-Morizet as an out-of-touch elitist. During her mayoral campaign, she was ridiculed for smoking with a group of homeless people while dressed in a chic leather jacket and jeans. A widely circulated image of her posing in Paris Match sprawled out next to a harp hasn’t helped her case.
The odds of Kosciusko-Morizet clinching the nomination, at least this year, aren’t high. In surveys tracking the center-right primary, she polls at between 2 to 5 percent — which has caused her to offer an olive branch to her right: She called for the prohibition of Salafism, the extremist offshoot of Islam, and has endorsed a tax on halal food, the proceeds of which she wants spent on building mosques and hiring imams who preach a “French Islam instead of Salafist Islam in France,” she says. Her move is almost crucial in the wake of the Nice attacks, as French politicians must come down publicly on terror. Peyrat insists that Kosciusko-Morizet isn’t pandering to conservatives. “Nathalie is not a moderate. She defends moderate policies in an extremist way,” says Ezra Suleiman, a French politics expert at Princeton University.
In the end, Kosciusko-Morizet’s optimistic, reformist brand of conservatism may form the Republicans’ future if not their present. Alliances are shifting to make her part of the landscape in the long run — in a twist, both Juppé and Sarkozy recently called for their supporters to help NKM gather sufficient endorsements from party members to formally appear on the primary ballot this November. “She’s in a masculine, elitist environment that’s governed by very old men,” says Thomas. “But she sees herself as a right-winger with a heart.”