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?

French president Nicolas Sarkozy attends a ceremony in Paris, June 2010
French president Nicolas Sarkozy attends a ceremony in Paris, June 2010 (Elysée)

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

Two stages

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,” writes 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.

Feud

The two men currently vying for the conservative party’s leadership might lack the broad appeal needed 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 has left the Union pour un mouvement populaire divided. 68 parliamentarians have split from the party. Both Copé’s and Fillon’s approval ratings have plummeted. Sarkozy is more popular than either man.

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

Disillusioned

Sarkozy lost last president year’s election with 48.4 percent support against 51.6 percent for the Socialist, François Hollande.

Hollande’s popularity has since diminished. He is hamstrung by leftists in his own coalition who resist necessary business and labor reforms (which Sarkozy also failed to implement).

The incumbent 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 French voters is disillusioned and may just give Sarkozy another chance.

Institutional problem

Although the fact that he is touted as the only man who can reunite the right suggests the party has an institutional problem.

Sarkozy may be able to obfuscate divisions for a while longer, but the need of keeping all ideological factions satisfied explains why his domestic policy, despite the “hyperactive” image he cultivated while in office, was often one of inaction.

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 divisions are less urgent. Virtually all conservatives would 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.

Long term, it’s doubtful charismatic leaders like Sarkozy can prevent the French right from fragmenting.

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