The triumphant return of a former statesman to their former glory is a longstanding feature of political life. Churchill did so, as did Berlusconi. Now former French President Nicolas Sarkozy is determined to be the latest statesman to make such a return. After being beaten by Francois Hollande in the 2012 General Election by only 3.3%, Sarkozy retired from politics and stayed out of the public eye until recently, when he announced he will run for the Presidency of his party, the UMP, and in turn the Presidency of the French Republic.
Opinion is currently divided on Sarkozy’s return. Supporters have compared him to Charles de Gaulle, who broke his self-imposed exile to return to lead France into the Fifth Republic. Critics say he is more Count of Monte Cristo than de Gaulle, set on clawing back power and punishing those responsible for his downfall. This appearance of being obsessed with power is something Sarkozy has never quite been able to shake off. In an unpublished manuscript written by Sarkozy writes that “Power can act as would a drug in terms of addiction. It [is] never enough.”
Add to this, two very real threats to his bid to return to the Presidency of the UMP, Bruno Le Maire and Hervé Mariton, and Sarkozy clearly has his work cut out for him. That’s why, rather than try to take these candidates head on in a fight for the leadership position, he is portraying himself as the wise, elder statesman uniting the party, bringing together the different factions to lead a new UMP, or in his own words; “The step today is to get my political family back to work.” If elected President of the UMP, Sarkozy intends to ‘transform’ the party into a new ‘Sarkocentric’ movement in three months to freeze out rival candidates, Alain Juppé and François Fillon, for France’s presidency in 2017.
When asked about Juppé and Fillon, who are both former Prime Ministers of France, Sarkozy said he knew he would ‘need’ them in the future, implying the choice of UMP leader was already made. Sarkozy announced he will “change the name of the party, put in place a new organisation, put in a new guard and attract party members and donors to balance the books.” At a rally in Lambeth the French media noted Sarkozy’s speech as being less of a local rally and more in keeping with a Presidential campaign. He stated that it was not his place to vilify President Hollande, but then continued to do just that. First he accused the President of a “litany of lies” in his successful 2012 campaign, then in classic Sarkozy style quipped “I don't want to argue with Mr Hollande. He thinks bad things of me; I think nothing of him.”
Posing as the anti-Hollande, however, is a great weapon in Sarkozy’s arsenal. He stands as the very embodiment of anti-Parti Socialiste sentiment in France. President Hollande’s satisfaction ratings continue to the plummet; at just 13%, Hollande is the most disliked French President ever. Sarkozy would do well to relook at his ‘work more to earn more’ slogan, which will strike a chord with many of those disenfranchised by the current leadership.
If Sarkozy is elected the new leader of his party on November 29th, then the campaign for President will have to begin almost immediately if he is to stand a chance of winning. His first step will be to establish himself as the anti-Hollande, his second will be to try to win back those on the right who have moved to Marine le Pen’s populist Front National.
Sarkozy’s political future now rests on the results of his corruption charges. While the investigation has been suspended to allow Sarkozy to lodge a motion refuting the charges, he faces 10 years in jail if found guilty. The future Presidency of the French Republic rests on the decision in the Paris Appeals Court next year. If cleared, Sarkozy could be on his way back into the Élysée Palace.
By Rhiordan Langan-Fortune