Sarkozy: the French Paradox

Nicolas Sarkozy’s return to politics is fraught with uncertainties, not least about the man himself. In French, “retour” can mean a return, or it can signify a comeback. If Sarkozy attempts a personal comeback, to avenge his defeat by François Hollande in 2012, he may well lose. If his return genuinely means a new man with a new plan, he could well win the presidency again in 2017.

Sarkozy’s own political camp has been in a shambles, but the socialists are now in at least as bad shape. Especially after the strong showing by the far-right National Front in this spring’s European Parliament elections, Sarkozy cannot allow himself to stand idly by and leave the door wide open for the National Front leader Marine Le Pen to capture the Elysée, or even get close again, as her father Jean-Marie Le Pen did in 2002.

All this has propelled Sarkozy back into politics earlier than he would have liked and more gradually than he would have hoped. He announced on his Facebook page on September 19 that he felt he had no choice except to return to politics, but was doing so in order to head a revamped Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), his “political family,” which he did not even name by the party’s current designation. He said he wanted to transform the party from top to bottom in the next three months, before the inner-party election on November 29 for a new party head, and make it a much broader political movement.

On Sunday, September 21, Sarkozy gave a lengthy television interview in which he said he wasn’t announcing his candidacy for the presidency of the country, but only to head his party, again not mentioning the UMP by name. A mere 150,000 or so registered UMP members will elect the head of the party.

Now he has begun laying out his “ideas for France,” including reforms to the civil service, the 35 hour week, retirement age, public expenditure, family issues, taxation, and the use of the referendum.

Sarkozy’s position is complicated by the fact that the UMP, like the socialists, has decided to have an “open primary” in which non-UMP voters may participate. None of this was previously necessary to get the party nomination and some suspect Sarkozy wants to do away with the primary in his revamping exercise, so as to avoid being outpaced in his seduction of the center by Alain Juppé, a former prime minister and successful mayor of Bordeaux, who has been endorsed by former President Jacques Chirac, and François Fillon, Sarkozy’s own prime minister, both of whom have declared their candidacies for the UMP presidential nomination, but aren’t contesting Sarkozy for the head-of-party role. Earlier this week, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, a former spokesperson and minister of Sarkozy, who is part of his new campaign team, said, “The UMP is dead.”

In his Sunday evening interview, Sarkozy stuck meticulously to his talking points, except for one instance where he went for the interviewer’s jugular before reverting to his new softer image. But it was still in many ways the old Sarko, talking about himself, air-punching with his index finger, looking like he was about to bounce right out of his chair.

Polls since Sarkozy announced his return show that a majority of French don’t want him to run again or be president in 2017. But the numbers divide sharply along right-left lines. A majority of UMP voters are solidly behind him, and that is the support he needs now to get the party presidency and reinvigorate the right.

Nobody believes Sarkozy doesn’t want to be president again, so heading the party is just his first step, with a better chance for the nomination than if he had waited and tried to return as a national savior, like de Gaulle or Napoleon.

If Sarkozy can lure the bourgeois-bohème yuppies who voted socialist in 2012, pull the splinter Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI) party back into the center-right fold, solidify the UMP voters, placate Juppé and Fillon on the ground of his own popularity and the need for party unity, then Sarkozy might gain enough momentum to even capture votes from the National Front, whose party faithful come from the disenchanted, disenfranchised classes — many of whom used to vote communist — on the basis that he can win and represent their interests, while the National Front cannot. At the moment, there is no socialist candidate on the horizon who could seriously oppose him, though the irony of ironies would be if they ran Ségolène Royal against him, déjà vu of 2007 all over again.

One way or another, Sarkozy has set himself a long slog that will require huge energy, disciplined organization, and relentless determination. No political figure in France has those attributes like Sarkozy does. The test, every minute of every day, will be to see if he can hold himself in check enough to put them into practice.

Nicholas Dungan is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Program on Transatlantic Relations.

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