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