Is Nicolas Sarkozy headed back to the Elysée – or to jail?

Just when it seemed that French politics couldn’t get any worse, the former president has put himself back in the game

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

In his more hyperactive moods Nicolas Sarkozy, former president of France, has been known to compare himself to Charles de Gaulle. Following defeat in the 2012 presidential elections ‘Sarko’ made a dignified exit from the national stage, stating that in future his personal commitment to the well-being of France would be in some loftier sphere. De Gaulle did the same thing in 1946; he retired to his country estate for 12 years of reflection and study, before being summoned back at a time of national crisis to found the Fifth Republic.

Mr Sarkozy is clearly hoping for a similar resurrection, though there are a number of differences in the two cases. General de Gaulle was never arrested during his years of exile and held for questioning on suspicion of offering bribes to a supreme court judge, as happened to Mr Sarkozy last July. And Sarko’s exile lasted for less than 12 months. Since during that time the only summons he received was to the police station, he decided to summon himself — back to the presidential throne.

He gave the first sign of this intention last November when his wife, the pop singer Carla Bruni, made a concert tour of French cities to launch an album. The cities selected tended to be places where her husband enjoyed a degree of popularity, and sure enough Sarko was often to be found popping up beside her, waving to the fans. He confirmed his comeback decision on Facebook two months ago, when he declared himself a candidate for the presidency of his old party, the centre-right UMP, and, unless disaster strikes, he will be elected to that position this weekend.

But the Sarko comeback tour has been a shambles. It has divided the party and embittered many of those he will have to work with if he is ever returned to power. When this is taken together with the chronic inadequacy of President François Hollande’s performance, France’s democratic system now appears to be approaching brain death.

The President’s approval rating has sunk to around 12 per cent, the economy is in perpetual crisis, with unemployment at record levels, and then there is nonexistent growth, mounting public debt, and a budget deficit of €84 billion. Each quarterly report proves worse than the one before, and there is no sign that any of those in power know what to do about it.

In August, after Prime Minister Manuel Valls carried out a cabinet reshuffle which amounted to a massacre of his own left wing, the new man in charge of the ministry of trade and tourism had to resign after nine days when it was discovered that for the last three years he had omitted to pay any taxes. Naturally his previous appointment had been as vice-president of a government commission on tax evasion.

To make matters worse, the most effective opposition is displayed by Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front. According to recent opinion polls, Madame Le Pen is the political leader most likely to enter the second round of the 2017 presidential election — where, if her opponent is President Hollande, she will win.

In this situation the UMP should be in clover: the party was founded back in 2002 supposedly to overcome the threat offered by the National Front. But it too is in crisis. It has no clear policies and no idea of where its future lies. It is widely acknowledged that this unhappy state of affairs has largely been brought about by the ruthless and cynical behaviour of Mr Sarkozy, which makes it all the more absurd that he has returned to take charge. He is implicated in six criminal investigations, including charges of corruption and influence-peddling. In response he claims to be ‘a wounded animal hunted by Socialist judges’. The similarities with Silvio Berlusconi are striking.

It is now clear that when he was pretending to retire in the summer of 2012, Sarko was already preoccupied with his return to power. His first goal was to ensure that no rival strongman emerged at the head of the UMP. The man most likely to succeed him was his former prime minister François Fillon. So Sarko came to an arrangement with another ex-minister, Jean-François Copé. Mr Copé duly defeated Mr Fillon and was elected as president of the UMP, but only after bitter allegations of election fraud. Subsequently Mr Copé was forced to resign amid allegations connecting him to the submission of €12 million of falsified expenses in Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2012 unsuccessful presidential campaign. Mr Sarkozy was questioned in the course of the same inquiry, which is still under judicial investigation.

Following this setback the remaining leadership of the UMP tried to put their house in order. François Fillon and Alain Juppé, another former prime minister, announced that before the next presidential election in April 2017 there should be primary elections to select one right-wing candidate for the first round. This was to ensure that a less extreme candidate would qualify for the run-off and thus terminate the chances of Marine Le Pen. Fillon and Juppé further announced that they would both be running in this primary and that the new president of the UMP, who would be administering it, should not himself be eligible to run.

Mr Sarkozy immediately saw their mistake. He realised that he could outmanoeuvre his rivals by running for the party presidency himself. As party president, he could rewrite the new rules and then stand when the time came.

His opponents in the UMP are now huddling around Juppé, the mayor of Bordeaux. Sarko in reply has increased the stakes by moving towards the far right, intending to outflank Le Pen and win back Catholic conservatives. Should he be re-elected, he has vowed to overturn François Hollande’s gay marriage laws and he has denounced the open borders of the Schengen Treaty. None of this will attract centre-right votes, without which no UMP candidate can win.

But Mr Sarkozy is in a tight spot. He is well aware that a political noose is tightening around his neck. The Socialist government wants to put him in the dock. His former colleagues in the UMP will do nothing to stop them. By May 2017 Sarko could find himself back in the Elysée… or behind bars. Marine Le Pen is delighted.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Patrick Marnham has been literary editor of The Spectator and Paris correspondent of the Independent, and a biographer of Simenon, Diego Rivera and Private Eye.

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Show comments
  • Ronovitch

    Sarkozy did not found the UMP ‘back in 2004’ to overcome the threat of the Front National. That’s absolute nonsense. The UMP was a voting bloc of three parties organised by Jacques Chirac in 2002 to maintain his power base. At the time the FN had precisely zero deputies in the National Assembly…Nothing worse than these kind of supposedly authoritative pieces about France which are full of ridiculous errors. The Observer ran a similarly pitiful one about Trierweiler/Hollande on Sunday.

  • Arlon

    @Ronovitch, you’re right. This is just absurd! Nicolas Sarkozy didn’t found the UMP; he rather became the party’s leader in 2004. The party’s two main founders are Jacques Chirac and Alain Juppé, the former’s former Prime Minister.
    Here is another invalid statement: “But the Sarko comeback tour has ben a shambles”. I do agree that, according to early polls, a considerable majority of the French people were not in favour of his return; yet, all his meetings have gathered more supporters than any meeting organised by any other UMP leader thus far. I promise you, knowing the man’s ability to turn situations around, that you’re in for a big surprise.

  • Ajourney

    @Ronovitch is spot on. It’s always laughable how apparently authoritative British commentators produce these ‘knowing’ pieces about France, while not even being able to get the basics right. Claiming that Sarkozy was the founder of the UMP relegates this entire article to the dustbin.
    As anyone with an elementary understanding of the Fifth Republic knows, Chirac and his cronies formed the UMP coalition to ensure a parliamentary majority. Contrary to the author’s suggestion, it was nothing to do with the FN, either. The FN didn’t even have any MPs at all from 2002 until 2012 (it now has two)
    Waffle on as much as you like about the increasingly ridiculous Sarko (a thuggish little failure who won’t go to prison, and who won’t be re-elected) but don’t insult everybody’s intelligence with this rubbish. Hope the Spectator publishes appropriate corrections.

    • It is too early to be predicting outcomes in 2017 but apropos Sarkozy this week’s L’Express has a 10 page cover piece about how the very personal hatred between Hollande and Sarkozy is set to dominate the rest of the presidential term. Sarkozy is reportedly obsessed by what he claims to be an Elysee-directed office of black arts intended to ensure he is jailed merely so he cannot challenge Hollande in 2017. This is not because Hollande thinks has can possibly win a second term, it is merely to satisfy his own personal egoism and loathing for Sarkozy. If true this puerile vendetta will just reinforce the anger of thoroughly disenchanted voters.
      They (led by the young and working class) are presently flocking to Marine le Pen with undisguised enthusiasm amid signs that some kind of political realignment is occurring — possibly even a Vlth Republic.
      With no solution for the deteriorating economy in sight, it would be foolish to write off the FN insurgency.
      Whether he likes the comparison or not Marine le Pen is the Farage of France … with one crucial advantage she has a even bigger supply of testosterone.

      • Wessex Man

        Please explain just what ‘insurgency’ the adorable Marine le Pen has been involved with, as far as I can see her party are winning elections. I do wish that people would stop referring to ‘insurgencies’ when the general public of both the UK and France are absolutely fed up with the lies and evasions offered to them by the lying cheating established parties turn to UKip in the UK and FN in France.

        • Judging by polls and recent voting results you are certainly right about cheesed off voters in France, the UK and indeed across the EU. But while FN are making gains it is currently more protest and none-of-the-above voting rather than conviction stuff.
          The party has very few cadres ready for power, or indeed cabinet posts, its financial support remains reduced and its policy-making still needs lots of polishing, so it is not inaccurate to refer to the party as an insurgency. Now if they ever attracted a deep-pocketed Stuart Wheeler-style backer things would obviously change. At the moment though they are beholden to a Russian Bank for a loan to finance the forthcoming regional and other election campaigns before 2017 not something it should be said that they are too happy about.

  • david smith

    There is no way Sarkozy will finish up behind bars. It’s not the way the French treat former Presidents and politicians and if the justice system does go to far and does not fall into line corrupt politicians always pull out a political immunity card as a last defence (remember Pasqua who got himself elected Senator to avoid a custodial sentence).

    • Kaine

      I think that goes for every Western European country, as well as our Anglosphere friends. When’s the last time any former premier of the ‘Global North’ was imprisoned?

  • John Steadman

    Sarkozy is by far the most popular politician within the UMP¨, and he is likely to be the Right’s candidate at the 2017 presidential, notwithstanding his half a dozen or so little local legal difficulties.. I doubt whether the French will be too happy about electing a former resident of the Elysée, but nor can I see Hollande getting within smelling distance of a re-election- he is more than extremely unpopular.This does appear to present an opportunity to the FN, but I just can’t see Marine le Pen winning the presidency, because the shadow of her dad still darkly hovers. As a long-shot I would suggest Hollande’s premier, Vals, in the unlikely event the Socialists can rescue the economy; but it’s surely wide-open at the moment. Predicting the outcome of the General Election here in 2015 is in comparison a bit of a doddle.

  • Storie Postali

    Not a very good article. Quite simply Sarkozy will not get to the Elysée (the French people are not that stupid) and will not go to jail (the French justice system does not seriously go after the rich, famous or powerful).

    • Tilly

      Why would the French need prison when they could quite
      easily get that old guillotine out of storage and when you’re
      finished with it, we need a few baskets that need filling too 🙂

  • He is still better than Hollande

    • Frank

      Hollande may be a moron, but he appears to an honets moron

  • Simon_in_London

    Unless Le Pen has a mysterious accident it looks likely she’ll be President in 2017, which I suspect will be a good thing for France and Europe. The NF are hard-Right but are not Nazis, and my impression is that the French Powers-That-Be may allow her to be elected. Whether the Americans will tolerate it is more questionable, but they don’t have the same tight control over France that they have over most European countries so they might not be able to stop it.

  • Barbouze

    Let’s hope it’s jail.

  • John Smith