On November 28th, Nicolas Sarkozy was elected leader of the center-right party Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) exactly ten years after he won the job the first time. The former French President, who lost the 2012 election to his Socialist Party opponent, François Hollande, is clearly attempting a comeback.
He joins the ranks of the numerous former French presidents, prime ministers and senior politicians who all chose to exit what they had once called “retirement” and rejoin the political arena. Sarkozy’s predecessor Jacques Chirac was elected president in 1995 after two consecutive failures against François Mitterrand in 1981 and 1988. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who was elected president of France in 1974, failed to be re-elected in 1981. Giscard attempted a long-shot return in 1986, first by winning a parliamentary seat, then by getting himself elected leader of his old party, the Union pour la Démocratie Française (UDF), in 1988. However, he failed to win enough consensus from his own camp to run for president in the following elections.
Today, it is 59-year-old Sarkozy’s turn to step out of retirement, less than three years after announcing he was “quitting political life.”
How is it that so many senior French politicians never actually leave national politics? In modern times, most other democracies do not give their leaders a second chance. With its current constitutional set-up and political elite, France remains peculiar in that respect.
The Constitution of France’s Fifth Republic was designed around post-war figure Charles de Gaulle, and thus created a unique, immensely powerful chief executive role. Since 1959, the French public has always held a fascination with the position, which has been occupied by only seven men. Unlike other Western nations, the French electorate seems to be sensitive to the appeal of the ‘providential man’, the statesman above party politics capable of taking decisions in the interest of the nation and not only of one party.
Sarkozy believes he can be that man again. A political fighter who won the French presidency in his first attempt in 2007 (taking 53 percent of the votes in the run-off against socialist Ségolène Royal), he had never experienced failure in his political life before 2012.
Complications to Sarkozy’s Plans
Now, as he engineers his comeback, Sarkozy says he wants the French right to be unified again under a renamed UMP party and to set up a “committee of wise men”—all former center-right prime ministers—to advise him on how to steer the country. However, two of them—François Fillon and Alain Juppé—have declared their intention to compete in the UMP’s primary election. That contest is expected to produce the center-right candidate for the 2016 presidential election. Understandably, joining Sarkozy’s wise men committee does not top the list of their priorities. Fillon, who served under Sarkozy, is having difficulties positioning himself in the race. But Juppé (who did not participate in last week’s election for the UMP leadership), has emerged as a credible candidate and will likely be more at ease than his opponents in the role of the elder statesman (he will turn 71 in 2017).
It is not only other UMP contenders that complicate Sarkozy’s plans. The path to the Elysée is full of other obstacles for the former president:
• The French people are unlikely to warm at the prospect of another Sarkozy-Hollande contest in 2017. In a country where political elites often appear disconnected from the public, fresh blood is in high demand. Sarkozy is planning to include as many members of the young generation as possible in the UMP ruling bodies. That notwithstanding, some of them will certainly confront him in the 2016 party primaries, most notably former agriculture minister Bruno Le Maire, who won almost 30 percent of the votes in the UMP leadership race.
• There is at least one investigation under way over Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign finances that the new UMP leader may have to answer to. He is accused of having overstepped campaign spending limits (in France, presidential candidates are under legal obligation to keep their expenses under a certain threshold) and of having forced the UMP to foot the bill. The scandal is serious enough to have prompted Sarkozy’s predecessor as UMP leader to resign.
• Early this year, the far-right Front National (FN) received the strongest results in the European Parliament election. That outcome only confirmed a trend that led it to take control of several French towns and has paved the way for a strong performance in 2017. The FN challenge is particularly worrisome for Sarkozy, as dissatisfied UMP voters may well turn to it instead of granting the former president a second chance.
• Sarkozy remains popular among UMP voters, but significantly less so than he was 10 years ago. In 2004, he won the UMP leadership with 85 percent of the votes of party members. This year, he was unable to get above 64.5 percent, a much weaker result than his team had expected.
• President Hollande and his socialist government may now seem in very poor shape, but there are still two and a half years to go until the presidential election. Asked to comment on the UMP election, a leading Socialist party member was quick to say that, “Looking at his program, Sarkozy’s return is bad news for France, but good news for the left which now has an official opponent,” implying that the reasons which led to Sarkozy’s defeat in 2012 are still there—his ideas have failed to woo the French, and his leadership style may well not be what the French are looking for in their president.
• As for Sarkozy’s new political ideas, he has yet to produce a platform which might help the public understand why he would do a better job as president this time around.
In conclusion, today Sarkozy looks a weaker candidate than he was at the time he first embarked on the path to the Elysée. To win the trust of the French a second time, he has still a long way to go.