Sarkozy to Return to Politics, Stand for Party Leadership

The former president says he “loves France too much” to remain a spectator while the country declines.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy waits outside the Elysée Palace in Paris, September 30, 2011
French president Nicolas Sarkozy waits outside the Elysée Palace in Paris, September 30, 2011 (Greek Prime Minister’s Office)

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced his return to politics on Friday, saying he would stand for the leadership of his conservative Union pour un mouvement populaire. The position could be a stepping stone to another presidential bid in 2017.

In a long Facebook message, the former president argued it would be “a form of abandonment” to remain merely a spectator while the French political debate disintegrated and the opposition remained divided.

I love France too much; I am too passionate about the public debate and the future of my countrymen to see them condemned to choose between the desperate spectacle of today and the prospect of hopeless isolation. I cannot bring myself to imagine that the world will come to think of France as playing only a secondary role.

Sarkozy lost the 2012 election with 48 percent support against the Socialist Party’s François Hollande. However, as the French economy remains mired in low growth and high unemployment, Hollande has become far less popular than Sarkozy was at the end of his term.

The Union pour un mouvement populaire also has few other credible contenders for the 2017 election.

Financial scandals and a disappointing result for the conservatives in May’s European Parliament elections forced party president Jean-François Copé to resign during the summer. The party is temporarily led by three former prime ministers, including François Fillon, who served under Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012.

Copé, a hardliner on immigration issues, was seen as Sarkozy’s protégé whereas Fillon, who challenged him for the party leadership in 2012, is more liberal.

In May’s European elections, the conservatives lost support both to the far-right Front national and François Bayrou’s centrist Mouvement démocrate.

An Ifop poll released earlier this month showed the Front national‘s Marine Le Pen beating Hollande in a hypothetical runoff with 54 percent support. Other surveys suggest Sarkozy could defeat her in a second voting round.

Fillon was nevertheless far from enthusiastic about his former boss’ announcement, saying, “It would be good for a new generation to take responsibility.”

While personalities have long played an outsized role in French politics, Sarkozy’s return suggests the right has an institutional problem. The Union pour un mouvement populaire is a sometimes disparate alliance of Christian Democrats and liberals who contest social policy as well as Gaullists and libertarians who respectively advocate dirigisme and laissez-faire capitalism.

In opposition, the right’s economic policy divisions have been less pronounced. Virtually all conservatives would rather balance the budget faster than Hollande’s government proposes 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 was able to keep those divisions at bay by often not moving on policy at all — despite the “hyperactive” image he cultivated while in office.

If French voters have lost patience with Hollande’s inability to marshal far leftists and Social Democrats within his coalition and present a clear and decisive economic strategy, they might find themselves disappointed again in three years’ time if Sarkozy returned to the Elysée Palace after what looks likely to be a long campaign.

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