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Nicolas Sarkozy: The return of France's Mr Bling?

Scandal-ridden Sarkozy's return to power is further complicated by changes within his own political family.

Last updated: 05 Jun 2014 15:33
Remi Piet

Remi Piet is Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Diplomacy and International Political Economy at Qatar University.
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The approval ratings of former French President Sarkozy have recently dropped [AFP]

The European Union elections results have shaken the political scene in countries which have witnessed strong surges from Eurosceptic parties. The ballots in Greece, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Italy have all been marked by the capacity of populist parties to garner more than a quarter of the votes. Yet it is in France that the success of the extreme right movement appears to have resonated the most.

For the first time since its creation in 1972, the Front National came first in a nationwide ballot and now claims adamantly to be the leading political party in France. However, this assertion should be challenged on multiple fronts. First, the nationalistic party benefitted from the low turnout for the election as the actual number of voters casting a Front National vote decreased by more than 30 percent - from 6.4 million during the 2012 presidential elections to 4.7 million in the recent EU elections.

Studies also show that a large segment of those who voted Front National did so to show their despair and rejection of traditional parties but without supporting the xenophobic or revisionist theses defended by the extreme right movement. For example, a recent poll confirmed that 81 percent of the French population wishes to remain within the Eurozone, albeit with significant changes in the monetary policies implemented by the European Central Bank.

The new rulers of UMP each have an axe to grind against Sarkozy and have also regularly opposed the closer ideological ties with the Front National developed during Sarkozy's presidency. They have rightly argued that integrating some of the xenophobic political ideas inside the UMP platform was a grave mistake and they hold Sarkozy responsible for the move.

Rather than a Front National victory, the European elections must be seen as a defeat for the Socialist Party in power and its main competitor, the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). If it was entirely expected that French voters would penalise a government that failed to reduce unemployment, what is most striking is the failure of the party formerly led by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy to capitalise on this discontentment. In fact, Sarkozy himself might have been the biggest loser of this election's outcome.

Instead of developing a constructive, alternative political platform, the main opposition party has been more concerned with ensuring a position in Brussels for some of Sarkozy's former ministers who would be expected to return the favour should their leader return to the political scene. Yet this very return might well be compromised now.

Jean Francois Cope who held the presidency of the party was forced to resign recently. More than the weak electoral results, Cope paid for yet another political misconduct involving large scale financial mishandling during Sarkozy's failed re-election campaign. This episode adds to the series of scandals and legal proceedings plaguing the former president. These include suspicions of pressure on current International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde to grant more than $500m to controversial businessman Bernard Tapie, illegal wiretapping to monitor the development of judiciary cases against him or favouritism for allocating important sums for opinion polls carried out by some of his closest collaborators after he had been elected president.

Scandals and legal troubles

Sarkozy's legal troubles go beyond the domestic frontier as he is also suspected of having participated in the organisation of commissions on arm deals with Pakistan to finance former Prime Minister Edouard Balladur's presidential campaign in 1995 as well as receiving illegal financing from Libya in 2007 for his own election.

Whether or not these suspicions lead to an actual indictment, Sarkozy's immediate future will be characterised by legal investigations. This appears to explain his decision to remain far from the cameras for the moment, hoping perhaps that the dust will settle in time for his big comeback in the 2017 presidential elections. Yet this strategy is compromised today.

Sarkozy won his spot at the Elysee Palace by commanding uncontested support from the UMP party. The alliance Sarkozy negotiated with Cope in his bid to conquer the UMP against former Prime Minister Francois Fillon was based on the agreement that Cope would eventually give way to the former president, allowing him to avoid risky primaries.

With Cope gone, this highway towards candidacy in 2017 is about to vanish. A triumvirate of former prime ministers (Fillon, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, Alain Juppe) took over the reign of the party in what has been qualified as a coup by Sarkozy supporters. The new rulers of UMP each have an axe to grind against Sarkozy and have also regularly opposed the hard line and closer ideological ties with the Front National developed during Sarkozy's presidency.

They have rightly argued that integrating some of the xenophobic political ideas inside the UMP platform was a grave mistake and they hold Sarkozy responsible for the move. After having been bullied while serving as his prime minister, Fillon carries a personal vendetta against Sarkozy, regularly calling out the idea that the French Right should wait for the return of the "providential man".

Ironically, it is when President Francois Hollande is hitting rock bottom in opinion polls and when Sarkozy should be receiving multiple calls for his return that he is losing ground himself. In a recent opinion poll, Sarkozy's approval rating plummeted by 12 percent. For the first time since he left office, Sarkozy is no longer considered the favourite candidate for his own party in 2017, trailing Juppe by 11 percent.

Sarkozy therefore needs to make a decision and choose to return to the forefront of the political scene or risk being overshadowed by the new triumvirate. The odds are that the next few months will be marked by a series of internal jabbing and public quarrels. When the French Right party should have enjoyed a soothing ride to power in 2017 on the ashes of discontentment over Hollande, it is likely that internal disputes and confrontation will continue chasing voters away.

As former president Guy Mollet famously said in 1956, what is remarkable about French right-wing parties is that they might very well be "the dumbest in the world".

Remi Piet is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Diplomacy and International Political Economy at Qatar University.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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