The notorious side of Nicolas Sarkozy is back, but then it never really went away. These days, you just can't open a French newspaper or switch on the radio or television without being fed with the latest developments on old or new scandals involving France’s president and his entourage. The daily newspapers and weekly magazines are mainlining on “the French right in disarray”, “the fall of a clique”, “the president's men”, or “the end of a reign”. One journal even announces that France is a “banana republic”.
Denis Jeambar’s anti-Sarkozy pamphlet Ne vous représentez pas! (Do Not Stand Up Again!, Flammarion, 2011) has a variant on the theme: a “parrot republic” where government ministers are given the task of parroting slogans crafted by an ubiquitous and omnipotent president. Pierre Péan’s book La République des mallettes (The Briefcase Republic, Fayard, 2011), writes about the suitcases of money delivered by African leaders to (mainly conservative) French politicians.
It is all heady stuff, made even more so by the fact that not all these publications are from the left; that France’s press is not regarded as being very hard-hitting; and that President Sarkozy is very close to powerful media barons.
There is more bad news. The right has, for the first time since the second world war, lost control of the upper house of parliament, the senate; the institution’s new speaker (and thus the president’s replacement if the incumbent is incapacitated) is now a socialist Jean-Pierre Bel (see John Lichfield, "Sarkozy in tough re-election fight after re-election 'earthquake'" Independent, 27 September 2011).
Only seven months before the presidential election where he will seek a second term, Sarkozy’s opinion-poll ratings have reached an all-time low for France’s fifth-republic (i.e. post-1958) leaders, at 32% support. He is now predicted to be beaten by either of his possible socialist rivals, François Hollande or Martine Aubry (the Parti Socialiste [PS] selects its candidate on 9-16 October after its first open primaries).
It gets worse. Sarkozy has lost every local vote since his election in 2007, and lost touch too with conservative, rural, “douce France”: the cradle of the French right. Most voters abhor his style, and even the international prestige he gained by supporting the overthrow of Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi has failed to lift his domestic image. Even in his Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), which he tightly controls, some voices demand that an alternative candidate should run who might avoid the electoral disaster they foresee.
The tornado of scandal
The more you examine the details of the scandals engulfing Sarkozy’s first circle, the bleaker things look for him. Three presidential appointees - Philippe Courroye, the public prosecutor for Versailles (and the second most powerful in France), plus the heads of the national police and the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur (DCRI, intelligence service) have been summoned by a judge for possible indictment on account of having illegally organised and supervised the collection of data on a Le Monde journalist investigating the Bettencourt case (in which the 89-year-old Liliane Bettencourt, France's richest woman and the main shareholder of the cosmetics group L'Oréal, was accused by her former accountant of having illegally given envelopes stacked with cash to Sarkozy's 2007 campaign).
At the same time, two close associates of the president - one of them his best man when he married the singer Carla Bruni - have been indicted for having helped to finance the failed presidential campaign of Edouard Balladur against Jacques Chirac in 1995. At the time, Balladur was a centrist ex-UMP prime minister, and Sarkozy served as his budget minister and campaign spokesman.
More shocking to French opinion is that the money for Balladur came via kickbacks from arms deals with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and eleven French engineers who had worked on the submarines involved were killed by a time-bomb in Karachi in 2002; magistrates are investigating possible links between these murders and bribes paid through middlemen like Ziad Takieddine, an old friend of interior minister Claude Guéant, Sarkozy’s bosom pal. Guéant’s predecessor, Brice Hortefeux - likewise very close to the president - is also being investigated for having warned one of the indicted that the inquiry had him in its sights.
The accumulation of scandals is damaging for the right but also taints the whole political world. A TNS Sofres poll in September 2011 finds that 72% feel that the political world is “rather corrupt” (and among those under 35 it is 83%). The Elysée palace denies any presidential improprieties and denounces a “witch-hunt” from the media and the opposition. Yet the list of affairs involving the president's men is each day growing uncomfortably nearer him, and seems both more important than during earlier election campaigns and more shocking to the French than the PS's own scandals (such as the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case).
The last man
There are further reasons for people’s discontent and Sarkozy's unpopularity: France’s economic and financial crises; the president’s arrogance and his many unfulfilled promises; and the ongoing feud between his clan and that of ex-president Chirac.
This internecine war on the right is a prime source of demoralisation and loss of credibility in the presidential camp - both because it hands ammunition to the left and raises ancient images of France’s right as the “stupidest in the world”. The peculiar flavour of this conflict is that it blends personal hatreds and financial interests, which are often needlessly ventilated.
For example, just as the 79-year-old Chirac invokes loss of memory to escape trial for having created fictitious jobs while he was mayor of Paris, his cronies are busy pumping up the “Karachi” scandal for use against Sarkozy; and days after Sarko’s nemesis Dominique de Villepin (Chirac's former prime minister, whom Sarkozy - “the dwarf”, according to de Villepin - promised to “hang on a butcher's hook”) was cleared by the courts in the Clearstream scandal (another one), a former Sarkozy henchman linked him to the African briefcase scandal.
The complex of ideas and power in France that takes the name of “gaullist” after the founder of the fifth republic, Charles de Gaulle - or “neo-gaullist”, or “post-gaullist”, as it moves further from the in any case often elusive principles of that statesman - has always been built around a strong, monarchical leader who seeks (sometimes through coercion) to federate conservative groups into a powerful political machine. This force has governed France for all but fifteen years since 1958. Chirac did it with the RPR until Sarko stole that formation from him and forced the centrists into his UMP.
This was to be the most formidable machine ever. But, four years later, the UMP is in tatters. A man in a hurry - he once told Denis Jeambar he would stand for a single term, shake France upside down, be hated, then leave to make a lot of money in the private sector - with no patience, or diplomatic sense anyone not obsequious towards him - Sarko has disappointed so many of his putative allies.
Meanwhile, much of French society groans under the weight of financial pressure. Sarkozy claimed he would be the president of purchasing power, yet the income difference between rich and poor has never been so wide and 13.5% are living below the poverty-line (i.e. €954 per month). He announced that workers who voted for him (and millions did) that they would “work more and earn more”, yet unemployment is rising. He pledged to reform a worn-out social and economical system, yet public debt has reached an all-time high of 86.2% of GDP and is now the biggest expenditure item before education. He promised an irréprochable republic, yet most of the president's men are drowning in scandal or suspicion.
What the PS has dreamed of achieving since 1995 - and persistently failed, thanks to internal divisions and a lack of strategy and popular appeal - should now be in its grasp. In 2007, its presidential candidate Ségolène Royal lost after her comrades turned against her (among them DSK, who joked about politics not being a “beauty contest”). For the moment the socialists are doing their utmost to appear united. Despite all the foregoing, Nicolas Sarkozy is a formidable campaigner and cannot yet be written off; but the PS will rarely have a better chance of success than in 2012.
In his play Design for Living, Noel Coward has a character say: ”Immorality may be fun, but it's not fun enough to replace one hundred per cent virtue and three square meals a day.” There is no way that the immorality of the rich and powerful be fun for for those who, because of unemployment, low earnings and the crisis, can't meet both ends. France needs change, and the man who once promised that too is now among the last who can credibly offer it.