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.

Does Donald Trump’s victory make a Marine Le Pen victory in next year’s French Presidential Election more likely?

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Donald Trump’s victory has excited right-wing populists all over the world. 

Since Donald Trump’s victory in the United States Presidential Election last week, there has been all sorts of talk about how his win bolsters the hope of the populist right-wing insurgencies which are finding favour all around the world — but in particular, in Europe.

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Leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen. 

 

One of those populist right-wing insurgencies has been Marine Le Pen and her party the Front National (or National Front). Le Pen will stand for the Presidency of France in next years Presidential Election, and many think that she has a decent chance of winning. In the French regional elections held in December 2015, the Front National won 27.73 percent of the vote, higher than the centre-right Republican Party who got 26.65 percent, and the centre-left Socialist Party (to whom current President Francois Hollande belongs) who got 23.12 percent. In addition, Le Pen is currently riding high in the polls, with most polling giving her the support of around 26–29 percent of voters, which would probably be just about enough to finish in first place in the first round of voting. Even though Le Pen was already doing well in the polls, many have suggested that the election of Donald Trump last week means that the election of Marine Le Pen to the French Presidency in May next year is now very likely indeed.

Le Pen herself has taken heart from Trump’s win, telling the BBC in an interview this weekend that Trump’s win had, “made possible what had previously been presented as impossible,” with the suggestion that Trump’s win boded well for her chances next May. This was echoed by Nigel Farage who said of Trump’s victory: “I don’t think it’s finished yet, I think this phenomenon is set to sweep other parts of Europe over the course of a couple of years.”

Indeed, before Trump’s win last week it did seem ridiculous that Le Pen would have any chance of winning the Presidency, and I for one would have dismissed out of hand the possibility of a Le Pen victory. However, the election of Trump has made myself, and many others, sit up and take notice.

There are a lot of similarities between Trump and Le Pen, except of course the fact that Le Pen is a career politician whereas Trump’s run for the Presidency was his first proper entry into the political arena (I am not going to count Trump’s abortive run for the Reform Party’s nomination in the 2000 Presidential Election). Both Trump and Le Pen cast themselves as anti-establishment political outsiders, and look to appeal to those voters who consider themselves forgotten by the political elite. In the Presidential Election, Trump had great success in targeting the white working-class who felt left behind by globalisation, and Le Pen has looked to do the same. When you look beneath the surface of the opinion polling, you find that almost fifty percent of blue collar workers are planning to vote for Le Pen, whilst the same is true of around 40 percent of the French unemployed.

Le Pen’s voters share many of the same characteristics of those who voted for Donald Trump and those in the UK who voted to leave the European Union. Typically, Le Pen voters are working on low wages, have relatively low levels of education, and don’t live in big cities — much the same as many of those who voted for Trump, whereby Trump’s strong support in rural areas of swing states counteracted strong support for Hillary Clinton is places like Detroit and Philadelphia. Many have suggested that given the similar demographics of Le Pen’s supports when compared to those who supported Donald Trump and Brexit means that the likelihood of Le Pen becoming President is quite high.

However, the electoral system used for electing the French President must be considered. In France, the Presidential Election comprises two rounds of voting. In the first round, a multitude of candidates runs. If any one of these candidates wins more than fifty percent of the vote, then they are elected President straightaway. However, if no one wins more than fifty percent, then the top two candidates progress to a second round of voting, where voters vote again to choose the President.

Given the polling, it seems almost certain that Le Pen will reach the second round, given that she looks to have the support of around 28 percent of the electorate. Her likely opponent will be the candidate chosen by the centre-right Republicans Party, which at the moment looks like being Alain Juppe; however, having said this, former President Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Fillon are still very much in the running for the Republican nomination. The reason that Le Pen will likely be facing the nominee of the Republicans is because the current President, Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party, is deeply unpopular. Hollande’s approval rating is the worst of any President of the French Fifth Republic thus far, and opinion polls suggest that were Hollande to run for a second term, then he would be defeated in the first round of voting. Of course, we do not know whether Hollande will run. There is a fairly good chance that given his low approval ratings mean that winning is near impossible, that he will stand aside and allow another member of the Socialist Party to run, perhaps Prime Minister Manuel Valls. In addition, there is the potential independent candidacy of centrist former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron to consider. Macron is yet to officially announce his candidacy (although it has been reported that he will announce tomorrow) but he is already polling at fourteen percent, given that he hasn’t announced his candidacy as of yet he has low name recognition. However, once he is campaigning, he also has a decent chance of making the second round.

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Embattled current President Francois Hollande. 

 

However, there is one certainty, and that is that Marine Le Pen will have enough support to reach the second round. Overall, I would predict that her most likely opponent would be Alain Juppe of the Republicans.

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Alain Juppe, Le Pen’s likely opponent in the second round of voting. 

So, could Le Pen win the Presidency.

Although Le Pen is leading in the polls, winning the Presidency remains unlikely. The French electoral system of two rounds of voting means that in the second round the anti-Le Pen vote won’t be split. In the regional elections of December 2015, the Front National received the highest share of the vote but didn’t gain control of any regions. This is because the Republicans and Socialists combined the ensure that the Front National were unable to win. The Presidential Election would likely result in a similar situation. Whoever gets into the second round head-to-head against Le Pen, would be supported by almost the entire political establishment, which would make it near impossible for Le Pen to win.

Therefore, I think that ultimately the likelihood of Le Pen continuing the trend of the populist right-wing winning elections is rather unlikely.

But, given what this year in politics has been like, I wouldn’t bet against it.