Can Nicolas Sarkozy complete his political comeback by winning his party’s presidential nomination?

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Former President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy. 

When Nicolas Sarkozy’s was defeated by Francois Hollande in his 2012 bid for re-election as President of France, most thought that his career in politics was over. Sarkozy had entered the 2012 campaign with record-breaking unpopularity, with seventy percent of French voters reporting an unfavourable opinion. Unsurprisingly Hollande, who was the overwhelming favourite throughout the campaign, defeated Sarkozy in both rounds of voting, and Sarkozy subsequently retired from politics as soon as his term in office was over.

However, in September 2014 re-entered politics with the announcement that he would run for the Chairmanship of his political party, which was then called the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement), but is now called The Republicans. Sarkozy was elected to the post and under his leadership the party won a sweeping victory in local elections in March 2015, and was also victorious in the regional elections in December 2015 (despite finishing second in the popular vote to the Front National).

On the back of this success, in August 2016, Sarkozy announced that he would be running for his party’s nomination for the Presidency of France. On Sunday the Republicans will hold their Presidential Primary to determine who will represent the party in the general election due to be held in April and May next year.

With the incumbent President Francois Hollande deeply unpopular (he has somehow managed to eclipse Sarkozy’s unpopularity as President) most observers expect that the winner of the Republicans primary will be the next President. So, if Sarkozy can win here then his comeback will be fully complete.

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The current President, Francois Hollande, is deeply unpopular. 

However, Sarkozy doesn’t have the nomination sewn up by any means. The current leader in opinion polls is Alain Juppe. Juppe is the current Mayor of Bordeaux and he served as Prime Minister between 1995 and 1997 under the Presidency of Jacques Chirac.

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The current Mayor of Bordeux, Alain Juppe, is the favourite for the Republican nomination. 

In addition, Francois Fillon, who served as Prime Minister under Sarkozy, is making a late charge for the nomination.

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Francois Fillon, who was Prime Minister under Sarkozy, is making a late charge for the Republican nomination. 

 

The latest opinion polls put Sarkozy seven points adrift on 29 percent to Juppe’s 36 percent. So as it stands, Sarkozy doesn’t look like he will win the nomination on Sunday but, given the record of political polling this year I wouldn’t rule it out just yet.

Although Sarkozy had always been considered relatively right wing, he generally governed in a centre-right fashion when he served as President between 2007 and 2012. However, for this campaign he reinvented himself as a populist, perhaps in anticipation of a general election showdown with Marine Le Pen of the National Front, leading to current Prime Minister Manuel Valls complaining that parts of the opposition Republicans Party had fallen into a “Trumpisation of the mind.” Throughout the campaign Sarkozy has depicted French national identity as being on the verge of collapse, and has touched upon many of the same themes as the dystopian speech given by Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention which effectively depicted America as on the edge of an abyss. Clearly Sarkozy has seen that this worked in the United States, and so he is trying to replicate it in France.

In this attempts to court voters from the far-right, Sarkozy has pledged to ban Muslim headscarves in universities and public companies, hugely restrict the citizenship rights of children born in France to foreign-born parents, and ban pork-free options in school canteens (currently, Muslim and Jewish children are offered an alternative meal, whilst he has also suggested that France detain everyone on the thousands of people on the intelligence watch list who have never been charged.

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With Marine Le Pen of the National Front leading in the polls, Sarkozy has shifted right in an attempt to court her base. 

Sarkozy’s approach differs markedly from the approach of Juppe, his main rival for the nomination. Juppe suggests that France adopt a “happy identity” which is based upon respect for both religious and ethnic diversity, whilst attacking Sarkozy’s proposals as unworkable, whilst suggesting that Sarkozy does not have “a humane attitude”.

Although some of Sarkozy’s policies are clearly popular in France (see the fact that Marine Le Pen leads the opinion polls in the race for the Presidency for evidence of this), it is Sarkozy himself that they dislike, and that it what is helping Juppe hold onto the lead as we approach the primary on Sunday. Polling undertaken before the election found that although over seventy percent of French voters didn’t want Francois Hollande to continue as President, over sixty percent of voters didn’t want Sarkozy to win another term. Although Sarkozy remains the most recognisable political personality in France, many voters still dislike his apparent interest in celebrity ahead of governance, which led to him being caricatured as ‘Le King of Bling Bling’ during his time as President; whilst his dislike of wine and cheese gives him a reputation as a man of poor taste. In addition, throughout his time as the public eye he has been beset with controversies, with many claiming he is corrupt. For example, the time when he posted a picture on his Facebook page showing him chipping at the Berlin Wall on the occasion of its fall, a picture which was later proved to be a fake. In addition, there is the ongoing claim that his first Presidential campaign was financed by former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to the tune of €50 million, whilst his former law partner being named in the Panama Papers did nothing to dispel the notion amongst the French public that Sarkozy is somewhat corrupt.

However, given the French electoral system, there is a pretty good chance that if Sarkozy can win the nomination then he will be the next President. In French Presidential Elections there are two rounds of voting. In the first round, a large group of candidates stand and the two with the highest number of votes progress to the second round (unless a candidate reaches the fifty percent threshold in the first round). In the second round, the candidate with the most votes wins the Presidency. Leading in current opinion polls is Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, which leaves her in with a chance of winning the Presidency, a thought which terrifies much of the left in France. As a result, it is likely that the left and centre-left will coalesce around the candidate facing Le Pen in the second round of voting, which looks highly likely to be the Republican nominee.

As the Republicans are holding an open primary, anyone is able to vote, and there have been reports that many who will likely vote for Le Pen in April have signed up to vote in order to back Sarkozy. However, equally, many who would ordinarily back the Socialist Party have signed up to back Juppe which has led to Sarkozy talking of left-wingers attempting to “steal” the nomination from him, saying at a recent rally, “Where is the sense of loyalty when you are calling on left-wing voters to sign and perjure themselves on a piece of paper in which they say they share the values of the Right?”

Really, given the open nature of the primary, the race has come down to which candidate is best placed to defeat Marine Le Pen at the general election. Given the huge unpopularity of Francois Hollande, if he chooses to run for a second term (he has yet to confirm what his decision is) then it would be very unlikely that he would make the second round of voting. Even if he didn’t run, or didn’t win the Socialist Party primary, then his unpopularity would probably do enough damage to the Socialist nominee (who could be centrist Prime Minister Manuel Valls, or left-winger Arnaud Montebourg) that they would struggle to be successful.

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If Francois Hollande chose not to run for a second term then Prime Minister Manuel Valls (left), or left-wing firebrand Arnaud Montebourg (right), would be the most likely candidates for the Socialist Party. 

There is also the presence of independent centrist candidate, former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, but it remains to be seen whether he has the name recognition to compete.

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Independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron (who used to be a member of the Socialist Party) is also challenging for the Presidency. 

All in all, the Republican candidate is the most likely to reach the second round with Le Pen, so the question is which of Sarkozy, Juppe, or Fillon is best placed to beat Le Pen? Polling suggests that the best candidate would be Juppe who is projected to beat Le Pen by 68–32, compared to Sarkozy who would be predicted to win by 58–42.

However, the danger of Juppe is that he is unashamedly part of the establishment and he hasn’t tried to hide this during the campaign in the way that Sarkozy has by adopting a populist persona. What this means though, is that Juppe versus Le Pen would set up an establishment versus anti-establishment contest in the same mould as Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton in the United States Presidential Election — and we all know how that worked out.

Overall though, I think Juppe will almost certainly win the Republican nomination, meaning Sarkozy’s political career will surely finally be over. However, given the political results we’ve had this year, nothing is ever certain, and only time will tell.

Is the field for the 2017 French Presidential Election shaping up to be the lowest calibre ever?

If you think that choosing between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, then spare a thought for French voters, given the choice of candidates in their upcoming Presidential election.

Although ten parties have already announced that they will be fielding candidates in the election, there are really only three parties who stand any chance of winning the presidency. These are: The Republicans, the Socialist Party, and the National Front. Currently, only the National Front have selected their candidate for the Presidency, with The Republicans and the Socialist Party set to hold open primaries in due course to decide upon their candidates.

The National Front’s candidate for the Presidency is party leader Marine Le Pen, and the policy positions that she has advocated throughout her career reflect the worst of populist politics. In the past, Le Pen has advocated a complete moratorium on legal immigration, ostensibly as a solution to unemployment, as well as a crackdown on illegal immigration. She has pledged to restore French relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whilst cutting off relations with Turkey who she has accused of supporting terrorism. In addition, similarly to Donald Trump, Le Pen has advocated improved relations with Russia, and has suggested that Russia’s actions in Ukraine were misunderstood. Naturally (for populist politicians at least), Le Pen also wants to leave the Eurozone, leave the European Union, and have a referendum on the reinstatement of capital punishment. Perhaps most well-known of Le Pen’s policy pronouncements, is her pledge for a crackdown on Islam. Le Pen’s repeated pronouncements of the links between Immigration, Islam, and Terrorism, have rapidly gained support in a country where many are terrified after recent terror attacks, and are looking for someone to blame. Le Pen has dangerously used these attacks for political point scoring with the result that she now leads Presidential election opinion polls. However, with the French electoral system, which includes a run-off between the top performing candidates from the first round of voting (assuming no candidate gains 50 percent of the vote in the first round) it looks as though Le Pen could be defeated by whoever she faces in the run-off. Nonetheless, Le Pen’s recent success and popularity showcases the dangerous forward march of the populist right in Europe and around the world.

As for The Republicans, fourteen candidates have thrown their hats into the ring thus far, and more are set to follow (making the French Republican primary much like the American Republican primary). These declared candidates include: former Prime Ministers François Fillon and Alain Juppé, and former President Nicolas Sarkozy. Fillon was Prime Minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, and has spent recent years being one of the strongest critics of President Hollande’s economic policy, as well as his policy of intervention in Syria. In 2015, Fillon accused Hollande of presiding over the ‘pauperisation’ of France, whilst during his time as Minister for Education he was strongly in favour of restricting the wearing of ‘religious signs’ in public. However, with Fillon polling only around 10–12% it seems unlikely that he can challenge Juppé and Sarkozy who are the clear frontrunners. Juppé was Prime Minister between 1995 and 1997, and is the current Mayor of Bordeaux. He could comfortably be described as a moderate centre-right politician, perhaps one of the few voices of reason in the Republican primary. However, he is well-known as a poor public speaker, without the ability to fire up rallies in the way that the populist right have done so successfully, which could hurt him as the race goes on. Despite this, Juppé is currently ahead in the polls by around ten percent.

However, standing between Juppé and the Presidential nomination of the Republican Party is former President Nicolas Sarkozy. Since losing the Presidency to François Hollande in 2012, Sarkozy has looked to rebuild his career. When he hasn’t been pretending to be brilliant at cycling up mountains, he has reinvented himself in the style of Donald Trump, as a populist right-winger hoping that the rising tide of anger in France can propel him to the Presidency. Sarkozy has described France as being on the ‘edge of an abyss’, which is very similar language to that used by Donald Trump in his speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in June. Sarkozy has pledged to follow a hardline stance on immigration, and has been one of the most vocal supporters of banning the Burkini throughout France. In addition, he plans to re-establish the authority of the State, and introduce compulsory military service for those who are not employed or in full-time education at the age of eighteen. It has been clear throughout the campaign that Sarkozy and his advisers feel that the National Front is the main competition in the upcoming election, and that a campaign filled with populist rhetoric is the way forward.

He is probably right. Given the unpopularity of the current President François Hollande, it doesn’t look like the Socialist Party have any chance of retaining the presidency. In 2012, Sarkozy became the first French President since 1981 not to win a second term in office. But it is looking increasingly likely that Hollande will follow suit. Hollande is now the most unpopular President in recent French history, and recent polls have suggested that around ninety percent of the French electorate disapprove of his performance as President. Many French voters feel that Hollande’s handling of the recent terror attacks on French soil has left a lot to be desired, whilst rising unemployment has also heavily contributed to Hollande’s unpopularity. Polling suggests that were Hollande to run for a second term as President, he would be defeated in the first round of the election. Hollande’s potential run for a second term is further complicated by deep divisions within his own party. Several ministers have resigned from the Hollande Government in order to run against him in the upcoming Presidential primary. These ministers include Arnaud Montebourg who was Minister for Industrial Renewal from 2012–14. Montebourg has accused Hollande of a betrayal of the ‘ideals of the left’ following Hollande’s adoption of a more pro-business stance in recent months, with Montebourg running as a firebrand left-wing candidate and promising to bring an end to austerity in France. Another individual who could complicate things for Hollande is Emmanuel Macron, who recently resigned as Economy Minister in order to begin a centrist bid for the Presidency. Macron has never held elected office but has been gaining popularity in recent months. Given the unpopularity of the Socialist Party (which stems from Hollande’s personal unpopularity), Macron is perhaps the only chance the left have of retaining the Presidency. Throughout his time in politics he has successfully distanced himself from the Socialist Party, painting himself as an independent centrist. Ironically, he may now be their only hope.

Therefore, with Hollande looking like he stands no chance of retaining the Presidency, and with it looking like the Socialist Party stand no chance of making the Presidential run-off, it looks as though the French Presidential Election is set to degenerate into a slugging match between members of the populist right. Don’t be surprised if the the two candidates who end up fighting it out for the Presidency are Marine Le Pen and Nicolas Sarkozy, who will compete throughout the election with scary pronouncements for France’s future and strongly worded rhetoric regarding immigration and Islam.

Ultimately, with the current leader in the opinion polls (Marine Le Pen) someone who has previously been on trial charged with anti-Muslim hate speech, and the two most unpopular Presidents in recent French history (Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande) leading the way in the upcoming election, the 2017 French Presidential Election does look set to be one of the lowest calibre elections of modern times, not just in France but in the world.