Man at a Crossroads
It has been a rough month for French politicians: Jerome Cahuzac, the Minister for the Budget has abdicated over a scandal involving an alleged undisclosed account at UBS, a Swiss bank UBS. Francois Hollande, the president, after less than a year in office, has seen his approval ratings drop radically to a meager 30%. But perhaps, the worst week award goes to ex-President Sarkozy, who is formally under examination for “abuse of weakness.” Mr. Sarkozy has allegedly exploited Lillian Bettencourt, the heiress of L’Oreal and richest woman in France, in order to raise campaign funds back in 2007. This is particularly bad timing since Sarkozy has been voicing more or less loudly his intention to come back into politics; it may jeopardize his political future. In the 2012 French Presidential election, Francois Hollande, the Socialist challenger, defeated the unpopular incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, by 51.46% to Sarkozy 48.36%. Given Sarkozy’s historic unpopularity and previous polls the score was surprisingly close and ever since he quit L’Elysée, there have been talks that Sarkozy is mulling a comeback. Though Sarkozy initially formally promised to his electorate that they would never hear from him again, his presence has never quite left French politics.
There are two main reasons for that: first, his party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) has been lacking a leader ever since his departure. Shortly after his defeat was formed the “Association des Amis de Sarkozy” (Association of the Friends of Sarkozy), a group including most major center-right politicians whose goal is to defend their president’s legacy (hardly a way to move forward). Not only is Sarkozy still extremely popular among the core of his UMP supporters, but also his party has refused to move past his presidency and to dig in the real reasons for the 2012 debacle: poor communication, flirtation with far-right ideas etc. The battle for the Presidency of the UMP has resulted in the tragic-comical victory of Jean-Francois Cope over the ex-Prime Minister Francois Fillon in an election marred by heavy accusations of voter fraud by the latter over the former. The result was a form of negotiated settlement that severely eroded both candidates’ credibility. Without any leader, the UMP has been waiting for “Sarko”’s return.
Secondly, the current President, Francois Hollande, has found himself at the center of quite a maelstrom: the economy is absolutely lethargic; he has had to relinquish many campaign promises only to insist on more austerity; his cabinet is behaving amateurishly; his own popularity is disastrous; his government coalition already seems ready to collapse etc. Even the popular war in Mali seems to be dragging on and his law on gay marriage, which has broad support from his coalition, is being obstructed by the joint efforts of conservative politicians and mass street protests. His popularity, 10 months into his mandate, is the worst of any President since 1945. A recent poll by Harris Interactive said that 53% of French people think that Sarkozy would have been a more effective politician with only 44% preferring the current president. Mr. Sarkozy, who follows current affairs avidly and sees his party falling apart, could not have hoped for better conditions to make a once improbable political come-back.
Yet, this new affair could prove highly embarrassing: if convicted (though that seems unlikely) Sarkozy risks jail. Even if he ends up being acquitted, the long judicial process will likely drag on to be an embarrassment, especially given the despicable behavior of most cadres of his party who have publicly doubted the judge’s independence. Moreover, if Sarkozy were to come back to political life in view of the 2017 Presidential election, it is unlikely that the French electorate, who rejected him on his person above his policies, will suddenly be so amnesic as to forgive him. His political base still adores him but the French public has shown that it is fed up by his hyperactivity and misbehavior. A combination of his silence and Hollande’s failure has naturally given his ratings a boost. However, in a rare public statement to the conservative magazine “Valeurs Actuelles”, while hinting at a comeback (“A time will come when the question is no longer, 'Do you want to,' but 'Do you have the choice?') he made several awkward remarks that resonated poorly with the public (notably linking allowing gay adoption and assisted reproduction to a recent horsemeat scandal).
This may show that, for all the talk of return, there are very little certitudes. In fact, Sarkozy himself may prefer another option: he has always been attracted by money and reports that he is being considered to head a 500 million Qatari private equity fund.