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Sarkozy strikes back: implications for the French political landscape

What will the much talked about return of Nicolas Sarkozy mean for the French political landscape?

Benjamin Leruth
13 October 2014
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Demotix/Tanguy Hugues. All rights reserved.

On 19 September, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy made an anticipated political comeback by officially running for the presidency of his party, l’Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP). This decision did not surprise anyone, as early reports on his comeback were released in September 2012, only four months after his defeat in the second round of the French presidential election against François Hollande.

However, on 7 May 2012, he had made it clear: “A page has turned for me. I will not be a legislative candidate now, or in elections to come”. So why did Sarkozy decide to return to politics? What are his main objectives? And, most importantly, what are the implications of his decision on the French political landscape?

Two days after announcing his political comeback, Sarkozy was interviewed by France 2, on prime-time television. In this interview, he stated that he wants to serve his political family (without naming it “UMP”), and presented his project of creating a broad political movement, cutting across left-right divisions. As such, Sarkozy clearly wants to reform the divided UMP. But first, he will have to convince party members that he is the man of the situation: “Not only do I want [to come back], but I also have no choice”.

According to a recent opinion poll, 89 percent of UMP supporters approve his decision to come back, and 86 per cent believe he should run for presidency in 2017. In another poll, 75 percent of them stated they would vote for Sarkozy in the race for party leadership. As most senior figures within the party decided to focus on the race for the 2017 presidential election, Sarkozy’s main contender for party leadership, Bruno Le Maire (former Minister of Agriculture under Sarkozy’s presidency), would get 16 percent of votes. As such, it is highly likely to see Sarkozy becoming the next UMP party leader. From then onwards, he will have to face major challenges.

Since May 2012, UMP has been a house divided. Following Sarkozy’s decision to quit politics, Jean-François Copé won a highly disputed leadership election, with former Prime Minister François Fillon contesting these results. In addition, on 27 May 2014, Copé resigned from the party leadership, over claims that more than €10 million of “false invoices” have been signed by Bygmalion, a PR company run by some of Copé’s friends, to bankroll Sarkozy’s 2012 election campaign.

Since June 2014, the interim party presidency is held by three senior party figures and former Prime Ministers, namely François Fillon, Alain Juppé and Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Despite Sarkozy’s popularity amongst party supporters, his leadership style and radical political line faces major opposition amongst party elites.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s personal objective is clear. Beyond UMP leadership, he wants to position himself as a serious contender for the 2017 presidential election. A primary election for the UMP candidate will be held in 2016. Sarkozy will have to face fierce competition, with two of his former allies, Fillon and Juppé, having declared their intention to run for this election. All candidates seem to accept the principles of this primary election, which means that it is likely to have a single candidate to unite forces against Marine Le Pen (Front National), whose popularity skyrocketed following UMP scandals and François Hollande’s decreasing approval ratings.

Whilst Sarkozy should be elected as party leader at the end of November, it is far from being sure he will convince the majority of the right-wing electorate in order to run for the 2017 presidential election. Alain Juppé, one of the most experienced politicians within the party, is his most serious contender and clearly stated he is not scared of Sarkozy. He is perceived by the majority of the French population as more competent and more sincere than the former President. Two key questions surrounding the primary election will play an important role in determining Sarkozy’s chances of success.

First, will the election be open to all voters, as it was the case for the 2011 socialist primary election? Second, will smaller centre-right political movements, such as the Union des Démocrates et Indépendants (UDI), have the opportunity to get involved? If the answer to both questions is “oui”, then Sarkozy’s chances to be elected as candidate will be much lower. However, if the primary election is only open to UMP members (among which Sarkozy is the most popular), then he would be more likely to be chosen as presidential candidate.

In any case, the main challenge for Sarkozy will be to appear as the rallying person which is needed within a deeply divided political movement. He will also have to face the “anti-Sarkozy” feeling in France which seems to persist, though it cannot be compared to the level of opposition he faced in 2012. In addition, six judicial affairs might threaten his legitimacy, as summarized in a recent article from French newspaper Le Monde.

In summary, Sarkozy’s comeback does not necessarily mean he will succeed in rallying a strongly divided right-wing political landscape in France. He will have to face fierce opposition within his political family, mostly incarnated by Alain Juppé. The key to an unprecedented successful comeback will be to appear credible to the French population as a whole, beyond party supporters and beyond political cleavages. The primary election will take place in two years: this is an eternity in politics.

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