Leadership Vote Shows French Right Dependent on Sarkozy

The fact that conservatives could find no one but Nicolas Sarkozy raises some long-term questions.

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was overwhelmingly elected leader of his conservative party on Saturday, winning 64.5 support in an internal election.

The strong support should help Sarkozy see off more centrist challengers when his party nominates its presidential candidate for the 2017 election. However, it also underscores the Union pour un mouvement populaire‘s dependence on a single leader, raising questions about its long-term viability.

Sarkozy announced his comeback last month, lamenting France’s “humiliation” under President François Hollande in a television interview. He also rejected the protectionist and anti-European policies of his party’s right-wing opponents in the Front national. “The fifth power in the world should not have to choose between the humiliating spectacle of today and total isolation,” he said.

France is the world’s fifth largest economy.

Many conservatives see Sarkozy as more able to compete with the Front national‘s Marine Le Pen than former prime ministers François Fillon and Alain Juppé, both of whom are more popular with centrist voters. Polls show Sarkozy could beat Le Pen in a hypothetical runoff election against the Socialist Party incumbent whereas the nationalist would beat Hollande.

But the fact that conservatives could find no one but Sarkozy to lead them suggests their party has an institutional problem. Although the Union pour un mouvement populaire was founded two years before Sarkozy became its leader in 2004, it really only succeeded as a vehicle for his presidential ambitions. Once Sarkozy was defeated in 2012, the party lost direction. The alliance of Christian Democrats and liberals who contest social policy as well as Gaullists and libertarians who respectively advocate dirigisme and laissez-faire capitalism struggled to formulate a coherent policy.

In opposition to Hollande’s left-wing government, that has mattered less. Virtually all conservatives would rather balance the budget faster and make it easier for firms to do business in France. But once they are in power, only an authority figure like Sarkozy can hold the right together.

Sarkozy did so by often not moving on policy at all. Despite the “hyperactive” image he cultivated while in office, Sarkozy’s administration achieved markedly little domestically.

If French voters have lost patience with Hollande’s inability to come up with a clear and decisive economic strategy, they might find themselves disappointed again in two years’ time if Sarkozy returned to the Elysée Palace after what looks likely to be a long election campaign.