Sarkozy Seen Plotting Return to French Presidency, Party Divided

The former president may be the only man who’s able to unite conservatives. What will they do without him?

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France in Paris, June 2010
President Nicolas Sarkozy of France in Paris, June 2010 (Elysée)

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy is plotting his “revenge” and return to power in 2017, Le Monde reported on Saturday.

According to the leftist newspaper, Sarkozy’s return to national politics is set in two stages. His advisors envisage launching an “appeal” to the French people in the summer of next year, after the municipal and European parliamentary elections, to prepare for the “landing” of their candidate in 2015. “In the minds of his followers,” wrote Le Monde, “the time is right for Sarkozy who will be able to present himself as the only statesman capable of facing the crisis and is the only republican who can take on the challenge posed by the FN,” the far-right Front national that took almost 18 percent support in last year’s presidential election.

The two men currently vying for the conservative party’s leadership might lack the broad appeal to be able to stave off a nationalist challenge. Sarkozy’s former budget minister and protégé Jean-François Copé is considered more of a hardliner on immigration issues than the former president himself but he is mistrusted by centrist republicans like former prime minister François Fillon who, in turn, is unlikely to win back voters from the far right.

Although Copé was declared the winner in a leadership election last year, Fillon insisted that the primary results had been skewed in his rival’s favor. A reelection is expected later this year.

The leadership feud left the Union pour un mouvement populaire divided. Sixty-eight parliamentarians split from the party while both Copé’s and Fillon’s approval ratings plummeted. An opinion poll late last year suggested that Sarkozy was more popular than either man.

Copé has promised to stand aside if Sarkozy decided to run again in 2017. Fillon has made no such promise.

Sarkozy narrowly lost last year’s election, winning 48.4 percent of the votes compared to 51.6 percent for the socialist François Hollande. The left also took control of the legislature for the first time in over thirty years.

However, the incumbent’s popularity has since diminished. Hollande is hamstrung by far leftists in his own coalition who resist necessary business and labor market reforms — which Sarkozy also failed to implement. He has tried to mend the government’s shortfall largely by raising taxes but there doesn’t seem to be a coherent strategy to either his economic or fiscal policy.

A majority of Frenchmen is disillusioned and might just give Sarkozy another chance. Although the fact that he is touted as the only man who can reunite the right suggests that the party has an institutional problem. Sarkozy may be able to obfuscate the divisions for a while longer but the need of keeping all ideological factions satisfied also explains why his domestic policy was often one of inaction — despite the “hyperactive” image he cultivated while in office.

The Union pour un mouvement populaire includes Christian Democrats and liberals who contest social policy as well as Gaullists and libertarians who respectively advocate dirigisme and laissez-faire capitalism. In opposition to Hollande, the right’s economic policy divisions are less pronounced. Virtually all conservatives would rather balance the budget faster and make it easier for firms to do business in France. But on cultural issues ranging from gay marriage to immigration, there is no consensus.

Sarkozy may be able to keep the divisions at bay when most, if not all, of the factions in his party can tolerate him. Longer term, it’s doubtful whether charismatic leaders like Sarkozy can prevent the French right from fragmenting.