The Grand New Party

05/08/2015 05:05 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2016

Much as in the United States, cross-party unity is rare in France. But recently one topic, or more accurately one woman, sparked a rare demonstration of national concord. That wonderwoman is Hillary Clinton.

Minutes after the former Secretary of State announced she was running for President, left-wing Prime Minister Manuel Valls tweeted his support - en anglais s'il vous plaît - closely followed by former President and conservative leader Nicolas Sarkozy.

The cynics will say that this was a mere communication stunt and that it had nothing to do with support for the Democrats ideology - or Hillary Clinton's ideas for that matter. The French leaders - like other world leaders - probably just fancied an opportunity to bask in the Democrat champion's international aura. Others will point out how odd it is to see foreign political leaders openly endorse someone who as it stands - at least on paper - is a mere primary candidate.

Leaving these considerations aside, it could seem natural that Valls a centre-left politician should support a Democrat candidate. What seems more puzzling probably is why would the French conservatives not be more naturally drawn to a Republican candidate?

Of course, through the offices they both held, Nicolas Sarkozy and Hillary Clinton have got to know each other. In her book Hard choices published last year, Clinton actually writes about Sarkozy, describing him as prone to gossip, but also as a much more "dramatic - and fun - in person" as he appears to be "on the stage". But for a leader such as Sarkozy are personal ties enough to justify such public support?

The outburst of Hillarymania in France has, rather amusingly, coincided with the rebranding of Sarkozy's right-wing party, known up until now as the UMP. It's new name? None other than Les Républicains.

This has sparked considerable debate within the party and criticism from its opponents. One in particular is being regularly voiced in an attempt to scare the French: "they are turning into American Republicans !" According to a recent poll, 55% of the French reject the name because it sounds '"too American". By now, you've got it: it's not cool to be compared to the GOP in France.

Sarkozy has been criticized in the past for being too "pro-American". With Les Républicains, he has given his opponents - and party "friends" - new ammunition. Reacting to the new name, Marine le Pen, the French far-right leader, sneered at Sarkozy's "childish fascination" for "Indians, cowboys, cheeseburgers and Nike".

What Sarkozy is actually trying to do is to appear as the leader who is bringing people together. The French are extremely fond of "La République", defending republican "values", as witnessed by the world in the aftermath of the recent Paris attacks. In fact, the "République" is referred to so often that it has become some kind of a mantra used to define national unity.

So far, the former French President has not succeeded in getting this message across. The heated debate over the new name has cast a shadow on his strategy. And he will probably have to swiftly move on to defining the vision, values and main ideas on which the new party will be founded, if he is to win the French back. Will this be enough to convince them that the Grand New Party has nothing to do with its Old American counterpart?

Since reclaiming leadership of the UMP last November, Sarkozy has been giving every indication that he does not intend to move the party to the centre. Liberal doctrine continues to inspire his view of the economy, traditional family values continue to be defended, a tougher stance on irregular immigration is being advocated, and assimilation is being preferred to integration.

It would be incorrect to state that this makes Sarkozy's Les Républicains the Gallic twin of the US Republicans. On issues such as healthcare, the place of religion in society, or foreign affairs, they would not necessarily see eye-to-eye. But it does certainly beg the question: what would l'amie Hillary think?