France – Nicolas Sarkozy: On the Road To Nowhere?

The best laid plans go astray.  Nicolas Sarkozy, the former President of the French Republic who vowed never to return to politics, is staring at the possibility of not winning the primary election for the Republican nomination in the 2017 presidential election. The two rounds of the primary will take place on 20th and 27th  November and the next two blog entries will concentrate on the campaign and results.  At the moment, the eventual result is wide-open, with nearly all commentators predicting a victory either for Alain Juppé, Chirac’s former Prime Minister, or for Nicolas Sarkozy, French President from 2007-2012.  Seven candidates (Nicolas Sarkozy, François Fillon, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Alain Juppé, Jean-François Copé, Bruno Le Maire et Jean-Frédéric Poisson) have qualified for the contest, which will be fought over two rounds; in the event of no one candidate obtaining a majority on the first round, a run-off contest will occur to designate the LR candidate.  12228 voting booths will allow an expected 2,000,000 – 4,000,000 electors to express their preferences. The deep unpopularity of the incumbent President, Francois Hollande, and the deleterious state of relations on the left bestows a vital interest on the Republican primary. The victor of the Republican primary stands a very good change be being elected the next President, given the state of unpopularity and division on the left and the ‘glass ceiling’ that is likely to prevent the National Front (FN- Front national) candidate, Marine le Pen, from victory even in the likely event that she reaches the second round.

Sarkozy ought to be in pole position: after a couple of years crossing the desert (literally, in terms of his involvement richly remunerated conferences in Qatar) the former president fought back to win control of the UMP (Union pour une majorite populaire – Union for a Popular Majority) in November 2014, renaming the movement the Republicans. The shift in nomenclature was intended to indicate a shift away from the pretension of the old UMP to be the Union of the Right and the Centre and to create a tougher organisation able to compete with the FN, while retaining the bulk of existing support. As one decade earlier, when he had captured control of the UMP, Sarkozy recognised the centrality of party; his main opponents were either unable (Fillon), or uninterested (Juppé) in competing at this level.  Controlling the main party – the UMP turned Republicans – was intended to act as a trampoline to smooth a trouble-free nomination of Sarkozy as the presidential candidate. Sarkozy is well aware of the resources the control of the main party can bring: the definition of the party’s platform that the candidates are supposed to respect, the material resources used for meetings, etc. Sarkozy used these resources fully during the period of almost two years at the helm of the LR, before standing down as General-Secretary with the declaration of his candidacy in late August 2016.

The first obstacle to Sarkozy’s grand design (of re-election) was that he could not prevent the process of primary elections. The Republican barons were able to impose the primary election on Sarkozy, for once forced to respect party rules, notwithstanding his resistance of any form of institutionalisation while President (Haegel, 2013). Trailing Alain Juppé in the various opinion surveys carried out over the summer, the primary campaign was supposed to allow Sarkozy to impose his political leadership and policy choices on the other candidates and rally the Republican base in support of his energetic candidacy. Consistent with his reputation as a man of action, Sarkozy portrayed himself as the Bulldozer, who would define the terms of the debate in the French primaries and impose his themes on the campaign as a whole.

As the primary campaign has unfolded, however, things have not gone exactly to plan. True, no-one can doubt the former President’s energy or the enthusiasm of his supporters. In contrast, the other leading contenders – front-runner Alain Juppé, former premier Francois Fillon, the rising Bruno Le Maire – have attracted less media attention and have been strangely absent during key moments. The spate of terrorist attacks during the summer of 2017 (Nice, St Etienne de Rouvray) played to Sarkozy’s agenda; the former President occupied the media limelight during this vital period.  Fuelled by a campaign based on values and identity, Sarkozy began chipping away at Juppé’s initially strong lead in the primary polls (de Montvalon, 2016).

Who will win the Republican primary is a question of key importance and this blog will consider the issue more fully in its next editions.   Sarkozy is obviously one of the leading contenders. Alain Juppé, former foreign minister and Prime Minister, remains the frontrunner in the primary elections, but appears curiously absent from public debates. The embittered former premier Francois Fillon’s well-prepared campaign has thus far failed to take off.  Sarkozy has a better implantation in the movement than any of the contenders; he boasted the support of more parliamentarians, party élus and activists than any of the other primary candidates. No-one would write Sarkozy off at this stage and he remains one of the likely contenders on the second round (assuming a second round is necessary).  But there are an impressive number of obstacles that might prevent Sarkozy from winning the primary.

Sarkozy’s ideological positioning is one. The secret of Sarkozy’s successful 2007 presidential campaign  lay in his capacity to transcend traditional debates between left and right and to accompany the debates over ‘values’ with precise positions in the field of society, economy and welfare. The period immediately following his election was that of the France of all the talents, the opening up to the left and civil society actors, the promotion of the new generation of black and beur politicians such as Rachida Dati and Rada Yade.  In 2012, on the other hand, Sarkozy was defeated on the second round of the 2012 presidential election on the basis of a much narrower programme of values and national identity, the strategy that he appears to be adopting again for 2017. To be fair, the linking of immigration and insecurity represents a fairly consistent strand of his political trajectory: his role as a tough Interior minister under premiers Raffarin (2002-2004) and Villepin (2005-2007); the creation of the ephemeral Ministry of Immigration and National Identity in 2007; the infamous Grenoble speech of 2010, which marked the beginning of a much harsher position on issues of immigration, migration and security were all testament to this. The early campaign for the republican primaries (that prefigures an eventual Sarkozy campaign) has been dominated by identity-focussed debates over the ‘Burkhini[1]’, over special diets in schools, the wearing of Muslim veils in universities and provocations about national origins designed to challenge the desire to assimilate into the national community by those with diverse ethnic, especially Muslim,  origins[2]. The game is a dangerous one. Will electors prefer the original (Marine le Pen) to the copy? Will a values-based campaign harden opposition from vital centre-right and centre-left electors, disillusioned with Hollande, whose support the Republican candidate might need to win the 2017 presidential election. Falling too far to the right is likely to provoke an autonomous centre-Right candidacy (François Bayrou), or even sustain the nascent presidential bid that Hollande’s former economy minister Emmanuel Macron makes little secret of preparing.   Beyond the substance of this debate lie the questions of the sincerity of Sarkozy’s ideological positioning. One policy in particular exemplifies this instrumental use of ideology: though responsible as President  for the important Grenelle environmental agreements of 2008, Sarkozy has recently been calling into question human responsibility for global warming.

The old recipes are the best. Sarkozy is playing to the hard core Republican electorate that – he calculates – is most likely to vote in the primary election. The substantive issue remains, however. Sarkozy is a highly credible first round candidate in the primaries:  there is little doubt that the Sarkozy core will be mobilised and their champion be present on the second round of the primary election. But Sarkozy will need to create a very powerful first round dynamic to stand a chance of obtaining the nomination after the second round. His likely adversary, Alain Juppé, will be likely to be able to count on the rallying of defeated contenders such as Fillon, Kosciusko-Morizet  and probably Le Maire et Copé as well, in an Anything but Sarkozy movement. And there remains some doubt whether Sarkozy will actually be able to stand as a candidate. Sarkozy’s judicial worries are never far from the surface, an obstacle vividly recalled in the last week of September (Goar, 2016). On Monday 26th September, Sarkozy’s former chief of Police (Bernard Squarcini) was arrested on suspicion of abusing his influence. On Tuesday 27th September, the weblog Mediapart produced documentary evidence that again linked the financing of Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign will Colonel Gaddhafi.  On Thursday 29th September, Sarkozy’s former guru Patrick Buisson published a damaging account of his years in the Elysée as one of Sarkozy’s key advisors (Buisson, 2016); Buisson notably criticised the political insincerity, emotional insecurity and capacity for dirty tricks of his former master. On 30th September, Jean-Francois Copé, former General-Secretary of the UMP, published a harsh interview implying that the Bygmalion funding scandal (2012) was entirely due to the incapacity of the 2012 candidate to control campaign expenditure. If it is unlikely that these legal worries will come to court before the end of the presidential campaign, they are likely to weigh heavily in the background.  In the past, Sarkozy has rebounded against adversity and such an outcome must not be excluded on this occasion either. Playing the victimisation card might help Sarkozy in the short run, but there is a long way to go before he moves back into the Elysée palace.

References

de Montvalon, J.-B. (2016) ‘Nicolas Sarkozy porté par la dynamique de sa campagne’ Le Monde, 27 September.

Goar, M. (2016) ‘La semaine où Sarkozy a été rattrapé par son passé’ Le Monde  30 September.

Buisson, P. (2016) La Cause du peuple Paris: Perrin.

Haegel, F. (2013) ‘Political Parties: The UMP and the Right’, in Alistair Cole, Sophie Meunier and Vincent Tiberj (eds.) Developments in French Politics 5 Basingstoke: Palgrave, pp.  88-103.

[1] The Burkhini is a Muslim-swimsuit that covers the entire body. In the wake of the Nice attacks on July 14th 2016, several Republican mayors adopted municipal decrees forbidding the wearing of these outfits on France’s beaches. These municipal decrees were ruled  unlawful by the Council of State.

[2] In a controversial speech in September, Sarkozy remarked that ‘the Gauls are our ancestors’ and anybody who contests this should have no place in France.

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