Je Suis Sarko

France looks to be back on its feet following one of its most dramatic weeks in decades. More than 3 million people took to France’s streets on Sunday to demonstrate their sense of unity in the wake of the twin terror attacks last week on a kosher supermarket and the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper. “France has always triumphed from its enemies when she unites around her values. That’s what I am asking you to do now. Unite, in any way you can,” President François Hollande said.

In the days immediately following last Wednesday’s carnage, Hollande met with leaders of all political parties represented in parliament, including Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front (FN) party, who is rarely invited to the Elysée. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, the leader of the center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, called for unity against barbarity and took part in Sunday’s march, just a few steps away from Hollande.

All this horror hasn’t been bad news for the chronically unpopular president. The most recent polling from French pollster OpinionWay showed that Hollande’s approval rating rose from 21 to 25 percent in the wake of the crisis. “There are few criticisms because this is the time of national unity; these events have been well handled by the executive branch, there has been no mistake neither in the decisions made nor in the speeches and actions,” said Jérôme Fourquet, of the French Institute of Public Opinion, a polling firm. The improvement in Hollande’s standing (a few weeks ago, some polls put his approval rating at 13 percent) is partly due to the massive, and seemingly competent, efforts by the French authorities to track down the terrorists and restore order. But the latest crisis has also allowed Hollande to appear, for the first time since his election in 2012, as the president for the whole French nation.

And yet, despite the talk of unity on the streets of Paris and in the halls of the Élysée, it’s doubtful that France’s acrimonious political elites will remain united once the dust has settled. Already the cracks are starting to show. “I would not want to jump from national unity to national controversy … but unity should not prevent eyes opening,” said Sarkozy. Le Pen agrees that the time for unity is quickly coming to an end. “[A] debate should start on what was done and what hasn’t been done,” she said a day after the rally.

Even before the weekend’s events it was doubtful that the sense of common purpose could last for long. On Friday, Le Pen announced in a video on the FN’s website that the government did not formally invite her to the Sunday march in Paris. François Lamy, the Socialist Party official in charge of organizing the march, said that “as a party which has been dividing the French people for years and stigmatize the French according to their ethnic background or religion, the FN had no place there.” Le Pen called the decision “sectarian” and “scandalous.” Rather than participating in the massive Paris rally, the FN decided to march in other cities in order “to be with the French people.” In the end, Le Pen joined a march of about 1,000 people in Beaucaire, a small town in the south with a FN mayor.

That the FN would make opportunistic use of the terror attacks in Paris should surprise no one. Animus towards France’s Muslim population is a pillar of the party’s identity, if not its raison d’etre. Marine Le Pen’s increasingly embarrassing 86-year-old father, Jean-Marie, told the Huffington Post’s French edition: “I am not Charlie Hebdo, I am Charlie Martel,” referring to Frankish leader Charles Martel, who defeated the invading army of Emir Abdul Rahman in 732. The younger Le Pen avoided such inflammatory historiography. She is said to have “modernized” the party since she took over from her father in 2011, while sticking to a strong anti-immigration message. It seems to be working: Some polls predict that she will make it to the second round of the next presidential election in 2017.

The FN under Marine Le Pen wants to capitalize on France’s dismal economy and the social strife to win support among voters disillusioned with the center-left and center-right that have traded power back and forth for the past 50 years. The FN’s “exclusion” from the Paris unity march may be just what the far-right party needs to reinforce its position as a voice outside the system.

The crisis over the terror attacks will also bring back to center stage Sarkozy, one of France’s most senior politicians. The former president was re-elected as leader of the UMP last November after just two-and-half years of “retirement.” After losing the 2012 election against Hollande, Sarkozy and his associates have been dogged by a series of corruption scandals. His return to the UMP’s leadership was not greeted by an over-enthusiastic popular response: Only 64 percent of UMP members voted for him. Outside the party, the French public seemed even more hesitant about a possible Sarkozy return to power. 

But the terror panic may be just what the disgraced ex-president needs to resuscitate his political life. Sarkozy began his political career as an outspoken mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, a wealthy Paris suburb, getting personally involved in negotiating with a nursery school hostage taker in 1993. From 2002 to 2007, he was a tough-talking interior minister, increasing the police force’s operational budget and making strong statements against extremists and criminals. He’s still well liked in France’s military and security circles. But the energetic, pugnacious former president also remains popular within the conservative electorate, which includes pensioners and many members of the business community. By contrast, Hollande is known for his consensual and inclusive policies and, until last week, the president hasn’t been known for taking strong stances on issues of homeland security.

These tough qualities are exactly what the French electorate will desire as the country recovers from the shock of last week’s events. They may well give the former president a chance to take the lead over his competitors in the race to win the UMP’s presidential primaries in 2016. Sarkozy faces strong competitors such as former Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, former Prime Minister François Fillon, and former Food and Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire. But none have Sarkozy’s background in security issues.

Sarkozy is likely the only politician who can stop the FN from reaching the final round of the 2017 elections. During Sarkozy’s presidency, from 2007 to 2012, the FN didn’t have a single member of parliament or senator and controlled only one municipality, Orange (and only through an affiliate). Clearly, a government run by Sarkozy drew voters away from the party to its right, the FN.

Sarkozy will likely look at today’s political climate in France and attempt to position himself as France’s national savior, perhaps even as a new Charles de Gaulle. Two and half years before the next presidential election, only time will tell whether the French people like to see him that way. But after France’s most brutal terrorist attack in decades, many in the country are asking serious questions about the future of French society and seeking security and strength. There is no doubt that the country’s right-wing will also try to rise from the ashes.

This piece was originally published by
Foreign Policy