Will France take Sarkozy back?

Does the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy have any real hope of getting his old job back?

Sarkozy claims his return to the political scene is motivated by 'duty', writes Saad [AP]
Sarkozy claims his return to the political scene is motivated by 'duty', writes Saad [AP]

In a recent interview on France 2, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy said: “I came back because I felt it was my duty to help France and the French people at this difficult time.”

With these words, Sarkozy heralded his comeback on the French political scene. But there is both reason and timing behind the return of this showman-like politician, known derisively as “Terminator” and “Don Quixote” in the French press.

But Sarkozy is right. France is indeed going through difficult times. Unemployment has reached an unprecedented level. Last month, some 3.5 million people were reportedly out of work. An economic crisis has gripped the country for several months now. According to France’s leading economic newspaper Les Echos: “All major industry sectors have experienced a production decline, the building industry continues to dive and housing constructions are at their lowest level in 15 years.”

Sarkozy’s return to the political scene also comes at a time when the popularity of his political rivals has plummeted to record lows since the left came to power in 2012. According to recent polls, President Francois Hollande’s approval ratings are close to 13 percent. So it is no coincidence that Sarkozy has reappeared now to present himself as “saviour” of the nation.

France’s Sarkozy announces political comeback

Still, Sarkozy claims his return to the political scene is motivated by “duty” after a “deep and extensive reflection”, because – in his own words – “it would be a form of abandonment to remain a spectator of the situation in which France is plunged”.

Sarkozy’s wording is carefully crafted to inject a measure of altruism into his decision, but more importantly, to regain French citizens’ trust and secure their votes for a new presidential term in the 2017 elections.

In a statement posted on Facebook on September 19, Sarkozy painted a gloomy picture of the country’s conditions and emphasised the “disarray, rejection and people’s anger against the establishment [led by the socialist party]”, as well as the “French people’s lack of hope”. This, he appears to believe, is a legitimate reason for him to seize the opportunity to return to politics and propose an “alternative” to the situation. But does the former president have any real hope of getting his old job back?

Can he pull it off?

As a first step towards securing a majority of votes for the next presidential elections in 2017, Sarkozy needs to unite the right-wing – his own camp – under his banner. Sarkozy has talked about his “need” of the UMP party’s tenors, such as Alain Juppe and Francois Fillon (both former prime ministers), to assist him in his mission. Thus, he projects himself as the future UMP leader and ignores other potential candidates for the party’s presidency, such as Bruno Le Maire and Herve Mariton. The latter have been quick to express their positions by indicating that nothing should be taken for granted by Sarkozy and that a debate was needed within the UMP party.

However, Sarkozy’s manoeuvre to return to the political scene will not be easy. The former president will face many hurdles including several lawsuits, such as the so-called Bygmalion case, in which he has been  accused of “abuse of trust”, “concealment” and “complicity” regarding the funding of his campaign during the 2012 presidential elections.

Then there is the dismal record of his presidential mandate when the unemployment rate increased by 600,000, the budget deficit doubled, public debt increased by around $490 billion, and the industrial sector had resulted in the termination of 337,000 jobs. How can such a record be spin-doctored?

The catastrophic consequences of Sarkozy’s policies are still present in French collective memory and pose very real obstacles that cannot be overcome through catchy soundbytes in interviews with the media. According to recent polls, a majority of French public opinion – as much as 55 per cent – expressed an unfavourable attitude towards Sarkozy’s return.

This view was reflected in several French media outlets. Carole Barjon, assistant editor-in-chief at Le Nouvel Observateur weekly, wrote on October 18: “By re-entering the atmosphere, Sarkozy has become banal. Idealised when he was outside the political arena, now the charismatic leader has lost his mystery. In a rotten business climate, particularly the Bygmalion affair, Sarkozy encounters unexpected resistance.”

After all, what are the guarantees that Sarkozy will do better this time, when he had five consecutive years from 2007 to 2012 to prove himself?

The real question is not so much whether Sarkozy has really changed, as he claims, or whether this time around, he will give a better performance, or even whether or not he will be able to bring back to France the much-needed economic prosperity – if reelected in 2017.

No – the real question is whether rhetoric and disingenuous mea-culpa are sufficient in this day and age for a discredited politician to mesmerise crowds and regain public trust. How far and how long can an audience, in an era of alternative information sources, continue to allow itself to be dragged into the political game in which the same political actors continue to pull the strings, sometimes on stage, but more often behind the scenes? Will the issues speak louder than soundbytes this time around?

Ali Saad is a French sociologist and media critic, focusing on the influence of mass media on society.

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