Sarko is no Zorro

France’s former president has repaid his debts to the party, but does he have anything new to offer the country?

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy took the poll by a disappointing 65 percent [EPA]
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy took the poll by a disappointing 65 percent [EPA]

In the late 1950s, Disney struck success by launching a TV series based on the masked hero created by pulp fiction writer Johnston McCulley. Each episode, then broadcasted regularly on French networks, reinforced the widespread myth of an elegant aristocrat returning to save the poor from an indigent, corrupted authority.

Nicolas Sarkozy, commonly referred to as “Sarko”, would love to fit into Zorro’s black cape but his return as head of the main French opposition party threatens to fall well short. He is now exposed by critics and the myriad of judiciary investigations that are targeting his past administration, and they are unlikely to offer him any respite.

His election at the helm of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) is far from the popular landslide he was aiming for. Gathering just above 65 percent of the votes against a couple of second tier opponents, Sarkozy faired far below the 85 percent he obtained in the same election two years ago. Winning the party nomination for the next presidential elections is not a given either. He will then face poll-favoured former Prime Ministers Alain Juppe and Francois Fillon, who are both ready to pounce at the first opportunity to highlight Sarkozy’s missteps.

France’s Sarkozy announces political comeback

Yet, Sarkozy is back in charge and all eyes are on him – something he more than enjoys. He did not arrive empty-handed. He swiftly withdrew half a million dollars from his personal funds in order to cover the tab of penalties which he left to his party due to his incapability to financially manage his run for re-election in 2012. This refund, however, is just a drop in the ocean as the party is more than $100 million in debt and its very survival is on the line.

Daunting challenge

The gathering of forces in his own political family is a daunting challenge and a race against time. While Sarkozy will struggle in the organisation of a political movement marred by scandals and a history of institutional wrongdoings, Marine Le Pen is charging at full speed to position herself as the champion of populist conservatism and opposition to President Francois Hollande.

The very day Sarkozy retook the reins of his former party in a less than glorious victory, Le Pen enjoyed re-election as president of the Front National, securing 100 percent of the votes in an uncontested ballot. Extreme right fascist parties were, after all, never known for the plurality of their political offer.

Now that the financial viability of her own political party has been assured by a shady loan agreement with a Russian bank, Marine Le Pen is powering through with her spellbinding eloquence skills, addressing the crowd with populist incantations that will likely continue to mesmerise the shortsighted conservative electorate.

In a country that has been facing economic stagnation for more than a decade, blaming all societal illnesses on foreigners or external institutions such as the EU is bound to receive praise from uneducated masses that are unable to address their own incapacity to invest and undertake reforms. History repeats itself and fascism always thrives on the same ashes.

The problem for Sarkozy is that he was in power during the economic depression. The current French deficits are the results of his policies. His apparent ‘hyperpresidentialism’ has never been backed with concrete structural adjustments.

The problem for Sarkozy is that he was in power during the economic depression. The current French deficits are the results of his policies. His apparent “hyperpresidentialis” has never been backed with concrete structural adjustments. One might even argue that the current strategy of supply-side economics implemented by Hollande and criticised by left-wing congressmen is more pro-business than Sarkozy’s own programme.

Political ambition

If Sarko’s voluntarism is an asset for his political ambition, his options and political space are limited. To differentiate himself from Hollande and to challenge Le Pen on the right, he has to win back the support of reactionary and conservative forces.

After antagonising half of the French population in 2011-2012 with his sterile debate on French identity to limit the Front National advances, Sarkozy has turned his back on the European construction calling for a reduction of Brussels’ sphere of influence. He also appeared a pushover when his political base bullied him into calling for a repeal of the newly passed law on same-sex marriage, despite the support of a majority of French citizens.

The main reason for Sarkozy’s chaotic return is that Sarko has nothing new to offer. The electorate now knows about the lack of depth of his media gesticulations and the weakness of the political support inside his very party. This forces him to privilege shortsighted populist calls instead of an ambitious political vision. When in May 2012 he announced live that he would definitely abandon any political ambition, no one was naive enough to believe him. But at least one would have hoped that his time away from the political stage would be used to devise an ambitious strategy for his comeback.

Sadly, hampered by judiciary worries, Sarkozy’s desire to return to power might be motivated by his hope to protect himself from the ongoing investigations, in pure Berlusconi fashion, rather than to propose a desperately needed new vision for France. The absence of a fresh strategy has been cruelly felt in the former president’s comeback strategy.

Sarko’s long path towards the 2017 presidential election will be short-lived if he has nothing new to offer. Rather than renewing with a much-too-well known “ex”, France might be looking for a younger and more imaginative love affair.

Remi Piet is assistant professor of public policy, diplomacy and international political economy at Qatar University.

More from Author
Most Read