(Bloomberg) -- Nicolas Sarkozy is unleashing his inner Donald.
Struggling in the polls ahead of French elections next year, the former president provoked comparisons with the Republican candidate in the U.S. this week after grabbing headlines with a series of provocative statements.
On Wednesday night he told Gabonese students protesting at a rally to go back to their own country and on Monday he demanded prospective immigrants accept that their ancestors are Gauls, the ancient race portrayed in the Asterix comics. That follows last week’s claim that humans may not be responsible for climate change, and his calls over the summer for a constitutional amendment to prevent Muslim women wearing full-body bathing suits.
“Sarkozy knows the value of a headline,” said Jim Shields, a professor of French politics at Aston University in Birmingham, England. “His tactic, as always, is to occupy the spotlight and keep his rivals in the shade. Like Donald Trump, what he says often matters less than the fact that he is reported for saying it.”
To run for president next year, Sarkozy needs to win the November primary of the center-right Republicans and polls show him trailing Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppe. The portion of voters with a positive view of Sarkozy fell to 35 percent in September from 38 percent in July, according to a poll by Ifop.
Seeking to kickstart his campaign at a rally near Paris Monday, Sarkozy told supporters “if you want to become French, you live like a French person. Once you become French, your ancestors are Gauls.”
“Even by his standards, this is crazy stuff,” said Sudhir Hazareesingh, a professor at Oxford University. “He is desperately trying to catch up with Alain Juppe by tacking to the extreme right.”
Sarkozy’s Republican rivals criticized his remarks. Juppe told France Inter radio Tuesday that immigrants don’t have to renounce their heritage, as long as they respect French laws while Bruno Le Maire said on Radio Classique that he was “proudly French” even though he has a Brazilian great-grandmother and his grandfather was born in Algeria.
On Thursday, Juppe decried the “lameness” of the campaign. “We’re debating the Gauls,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “How about we talk about the future?”
Government ministers poured ridicule Sarkozy. Justice Minister Jean-Jacques Urvoas said his ancestors were Breton so his family had only been French for 500 years while Moroccan-born Education Minister Najat Belkacem suggested Sarkozy needed a history lesson.
Even the anti-immigration National Front kept its distance. Party leader Marine Le Pen laughed off a question about it on RTL Radio Tuesday and said she didn’t have to respond to every Sarkozy’s statement. Her deputy Florian Philippot said Wednesday that Sarkozy wants to be the “president of buzz.”
The idea of a line of descent going all the way back to a single, ancient race has become a cliche of an outdated idea of French identity which emerged in the late 19th century as the country’s leaders looked for a myth to rally the nation after losing a war with Germany in 1870.
School books introduced in the period began “our ancestors the Gauls” even in African and Asian colonies where the students had a very different lineage. It was reinforced by the popular Asterix comics, which first came out in 1959 and show plucky Gaulish villagers outwitting their Roman occupiers. But the idea that modern France is primarily descended from one ancient Celtic society was always debunked by historians and the last such textbooks were withdrawn by the 1960s.
“I too adore Asterix, but thankfully France is a much bigger idea than this,” Labor Minister Myriam El-Khomri wrote on Twitter.
It’s not the first time Sarkozy has made wild statements to fire up his base. In 2005, he said he would use water cannons to rid France’s crime ridden neighborhoods of their “rabble” and in his successful 2007 campaign he said French Muslims shouldn’t be cutting sheep’s throats in their bathtubs. In fact, sheep sacrificed for the Eid holiday are killed in abattoirs and their packaged meat is delivered via supermarkets.
“There is some method in Sarkozy’s madness,” said Shields, the Aston University professor. “He judges that the Republican primary and the presidential election will be won on the right, not in the center. So he follows his political nose and goes back to a hunting ground that’s served him well in the past.”